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Me and Those Canoes
Sparse Grey Hackle
September 02, 1957
Illogical and torturous, they demand in equal amounts courage, resolution, endurance. The author loves them
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September 02, 1957

Me And Those Canoes

Illogical and torturous, they demand in equal amounts courage, resolution, endurance. The author loves them

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Canoeing was invented by the Indians for torturing captives. The Eighth Amendment prohibiting cruel and unusual punishments meant canoeing. Irvin Cobb had canoeing in mind when he wrote that sport is hard work for which you don't get paid.

Canoeists are different from ordinary people. In some cases the difference probably is a matter of courage, resolution, endurance or fortitude, but in my case it was what my old top sergeant said about a rookie who tackled all the dangerous horses. "He ain't brave," snorted the hard-boiled top. "He just don't know no better."

The fact that every time a canoeist embarks he runs a measurable risk of drowning or coronary thrombosis and a greater one of hernia or heat prostration indicates that there are things basically wrong with canoeing; it is, in fact, the most inadvisable means ever conceived for the transportation of man by his own efforts.

Take paddling. If you wanted to move a bureau, you'd stand behind it and shove it with the big muscles of your back and legs. If you had a boat instead of a bureau, you'd dig in your oars and do the same thing. But what would you think of a man who moved a bureau by sitting alongside it, a foot away, and twisting around to give it a feeble shove? If he had a canoe instead of a bureau, he'd use a paddle the same way.

Rowing with two oars drives a boat as straight as a bricklayer heading for a saloon, but paddling with a single blade zigzags a canoe like a bricklayer leaving a saloon. The beginning of the stroke turns the prow aside, so to keep from traveling in a circle the paddler must end the stroke by turning his blade and pushing with it sideways, away from him. That off-center body twisting and straining is man-killing. An AAU official has said that the nearest a man can come to the pangs of childbirth is the twisting and wrenching of competition walking, but he's wrong. The agony of paddling against a headwind is like giving birth to cement blocks.

Carrying a canoe over portages hurts less than paddling only because it is done less. Any carrying at all is too much; there is no, repeat no, canoe light enough for portaging. There is one that weighs only 45 pounds, although it is aluminum, and a careless fisherman in an aluminum canoe sounds like two skeletons wrestling on a tin roof; but even that is too heavy, and besides, a canoe is three times too long to be carried through brush without catching and hanging up worse than a militia officer's saber.

The difference between canoeists and other people is emphasized again in the matter of white water. Canoeists ascend, and sometimes descend, rapids by poling. Unlike the paddler, the poler stands up to the job, but he not only reaches over the edge of the boat—he leans over it. The results of throwing one's weight on a pole which then slips are dramatic but not necessarily enjoyable.

Poling downstream can be even more dramatic and even less enjoyable. The standing poler shoves his pole ahead, sets the point and then snubs the canoe, letting it downstream slower than the current. The exciting part is when the pole sticks fast among the rocks. If the poler lets go, or if he holds on and the pole breaks, the canoe is out of control until he can squat and grab a paddle—usually too late. But if he hangs on and the pole doesn't break, the canoe goes ahead without him and he remains in the middle of a roaring torrent, waving like a flag. He can try to walk ashore or he can take a chance and let the current carry him down through the rapids, but most well-travelled stretches of white water are studded with canoe poles thrumming in the current, still supporting the skeletons of polers who held on until they starved to death.

With the paddle, white water must be run faster than the pace of the current, to maintain steering way. Since this ordinarily amounts to 10 miles an hour or more, a loaded canoe which encounters a granite mountain in the midst of a rapids is likely to absorb so many foot-pounds of energy that it abandons its unity like a dropped watermelon. For these reasons most canoeists carry around most rapids, black flies or no black flies. Some make a point of never doing so, but they are not numerous; they keep getting used up.

It is not surprising that a sport which makes such demands on its devotees should boast its full share of characters. Three of them, all identified with the canoeing craze of the '80s and '90s, are fair examples. They are MacGregor, Bishop and Nessmuk.

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