For pleasure one evening last April, 76-year-old William E. Colby went paddling in his canoe near his home in southern Maryland. The next day the canoe was found, but Colby was missing.
Talk of foul play arose. Colby, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, was known to be cautious and methodical. But canoe experts said there was no mystery to his disappearance. They were sure that he had drowned after making simple mistakes common to canoeists. Canoeing appears to be sedate, and it often lures paddlers into risky behavior.
After nine days Colby's body was found in the Wicomico River, near his house at Rock Point, Md. He lay not far from where his empty, overturned canoe had beached. He bore no visible marks of violence.
According to the autopsy, Colby had suffered a heart attack, but numbed by the cold water and weighted by his clothing, he died of drowning and hypothermia. Presumably he had tumbled from his canoe or tipped it over. No life jacket was found. "There is nothing unusual about this case," a police spokesman told reporters. "Canoe drownings happen often on rivers and lakes." Indeed, between 73 and 90 paddlers drown each year, according to Coast Guard surveys. This grim data may be news to most of America's 14 million recreational canoeists, but it has long troubled the American Canoe Association (ACA), the National Safety Council, the Red Cross and other groups that work to keep people from drowning.
The safety of canoeing has been a public issue since early in this century. Canoeing was vastly popular from 1885 until 1920. Then, after magazines reported a high incidence of drowning among paddlers, canoes were banned in many places. Within five years 275 canoe builders had gone out of business. In 1926, however, recreation leaders resurrected canoeing. Its popularity grew steadily after that, but now the activity seems threatened by the same troubles that beset it long ago.
The big problem is design. Modern canoe seats are unsafe because they put paddlers in a position from which it is easy to tip the canoe. There were no seats in the birchbark and cedar vessels of native North Americans, who invented the canoe. There were no seats in the mighty 40-foot canoes of the French-Canadian voyageurs who paddled from Montreal to the Pacific and the Arctic. Everyone paddled on his knees, with thighs spread and buttocks braced against the thwarts. This provided leverage and, more important, stability, making capsizing very unlikely.
Pioneer woodsmen acquired or copied the Indians' canoes and their kneeling technique. But when horses and roads and steamboats came, canoeing was forgotten. It enjoyed a revival after 1854, principally because a book by Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers, fascinated wilderness lovers. Many of them built canoes. Sensing a business opportunity, a shoe clerk named J. Henry Rushton became a canoemaker in 1873.
Rushton's graceful Indian-style cedar craft, lightweight and only 10� feet long, sold briskly from his shop in Canton, N.Y. He invented ways to quickly stretch watertight canvas over a wooden hull and set up a factory in 1881. He prospered. Competitors did too, notably the Old Town company, which started in 1902 and is still in business in Old Town, Maine.
Dartmouth College was one institution that emphasized the outdoor experience. It bought canoes and encouraged students to make expeditions along the Connecticut River. Elsewhere around the U.S., canoe clubs sprouted. Entrepreneurs opened canoe rental stands in parks with lakes. Love-struck couples, family picnickers, hunters and fishermen went paddling by the tens of thousands on sunny Sundays.
But in 1920 people around Boston raised questions about frequent canoe drownings in the Charles River. The weekly Illustrated World investigated. It apparently got little help from institutions along the Charles, but it turned up horrendous numbers along a 50-mile strip of the Merrimac. Canoe drownings there numbered as many as eight per Sunday, is CANOEING A SAFE SPORT? was a headline in one of the weekly's issues in February 1920. Scribner's and The Outlook picked up the outcry.