Monday, July 02, 2007

A Tale of Two Canoe Trips


Dickens wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”

The Location

This past Friday Jackson and Dad left for the Ozarks to participate in our church’s fourth annual father and son canoe trip. A local travel agent puts this together. Well over a hundred fathers & sons headed down to Windermere, a faith based retreat and resort grounds about 10 miles north of Camdenton, Missouri. We went tent-in-tow and created what was for many, including Jackson, a first camping experience on the Windermere grounds.

The canoeing took place on the Little Niagua River, which had a launch point near Camdenton, MO.

Friday Night Lights

After a feverish departure from Kansas City we choked in a near late arrival. We got there in time for tent set up and a quick trip to the cafeteria for dinner. After our unpacking we headed off to the pool. Windermere is truly a beautiful place and we were blessed to be able to stay there. The pool was no exception. Jackson loved it because he was safe to explore the majority of the pool without a life jacket. We played some volleyball together with the other boys. Jackson’s interest quickly faded however when he found an abandoned water gun.

Darkness had fallen as we returned to the tent. As we approached Dad sprained his ankle. For those who know me, they know that is not unusual. Many people close to me have seen several of my spills. Years ago I suffered a severe sprain which put me in a wheel chair for a week and then on a cane for some time thereafter. The doctor had told me at the time that over my life I would come to regret not breaking it because I have forever weakened the joint. Bad footing on uneven ground paired with a mind being elsewhere can lead to a painful few hours. Friday was Jackson’s first experience with it at a memorable age and being my only source of help. Needless to say he was very concerned.

The travel group had organized a Smore buffet around a fire for us all. Well timed for me because I could sit, Jackson took some convincing. I could tell he finally got it when he asked if these were the same smores he had seen on “Max & Ruby,” one of his favorite cartoons. Jack is a natural marshmallow roaster. (Constant sword play finally having value?)
With Jack becoming more comfortable with the fire, I felt it time to move on, ankle or not. So we went off for a walk to the marina. We found ourselves on the patio of the snack shop looking out at the water and splitting a basket of nachos. An appetizing combo I realize; smores and nachos, but remember these are boys enjoying their freedom. Regardless of palette, Jackson couldn’t get enough of the nachos. There, over the water, my son and I had some time to talk. What I hope was the first of many. Real context – real words.

Settling in for bed was like opening a birthday present. Jackson was excited. You could see his appreciation of the moment on his face. I don’t think he really believed we were going to stay the night until it was time for bed. I received an extra special hug and kiss that night, with an I-love-you-Dad at the end. Jackson kept looking over and smiling at me, and then sleep took us both.

At 3:25 am I awoke to a call of nature. There were legs flopped over my stomach and a restless boy at my side. I returned to the tent just in time to hear rain begin falling. Quickly I pulled in our towels and shorts from the pool, none of which had even begun to dry. Listening to rain in a tent is one of my favorite aspects to camping. It’s like listening to an orchestra play. It is a secret pleasure. A time when thinking is inspired and dreams are fostered like no other. Nature’s music brought Jackson to a calmer sleep as well. I was in heaven. I don’t know many parents who don’t appreciate watching their children sleep. To have that overlay a very rare pleasure I have always treasured was truly unique.

And…wait…wait…wait…okay...were off!

Rain continued throughout the night and into the morning. The buzz around breakfast was that the float was going to be cancelled because the rain, which has been part of a storm system terrorizing Oklahoma, Kansas, and some parts of Missouri, had gotten the water speed over the threshold by which the tour company would enable inexperienced paddlers on the river. At 8:30, they cancelled the float. At 9:00 a.m., the majority of campers announced they would go fishing for about an hour, and then head back to the KC Metro. At 9:15, the trip was back on. Hmmm?

So we lined up about 40 cars for the ten mile drive to the float companies parking lot. Two hours later, we arrived. The roads we took to get to the other camp were simply jeep trails. Jeep trails cutting through the Ozark Mountains. Our wagon train turned around no less than 3 times. We crossed through several rivers, meandered winding roads, and paint sprayed about 40 cars with red clay. For Dad in the Land Rover, it was a lot of fun, time consuming, but fun. For Jackson, it was a prime opportunity for a nap and so he slept through the whole thing.

After the third turnaround, the Ford Ranger directly in our path had a flat tire. An ugly tear along the side of the tire inflicted by some rocks along the jeep trails. Did I mention something about it raining? So this Dad and 5 others changed a tire. As the jack was useless on a muddy jeep trail (it dug a nice hole in the ground though), Dad and 3 others held up the truck while 2 others changed out the tire with the spare in world record time. Did I mention that I sprained my ankle just hours earlier? I should also mention that after we stopped, Jackson woke up and joined his friend Logan in the back of their suburban to watch a DVD. He did put his head out the window and asked once if it was time to canoe yet? So I know he had some semblance of his surroundings. Perhaps?

And we finally made it to the camp to get our canoes.

The Washing Machine

This Dad prides himself on canoeing in moving water. I have done some stupid things in lakes before trying to fish alone in a canoe, but on moving water I have always done very well. My scouting career has taught me much in this area, I have been on several rivers in southern Missouri, and my scout troop regularly braved the Quincy bay and surrounding waters of the Mississippi under the supervision of a skilled instructor when I was in my teens. I know how to canoe.

Not everyone else on these kinds of trips does know how to handle a boat however, and forgetting that became a critical error in my thinking at one point on the river.

We had been having an easy time of it. The high water from the rains had made things pretty basic. We even pulled off on a small island and Jackson had his first experience of swimming in a river. To which he complained about sand in his aqua socks, but hey he is only 4 so there you go.

We had another canoe we were trying to stay with because the boy Logan, also 4, and Jackson were becoming fast friends. Logan’s Dad does what I see many boaters do in active water: When they loose control of the boat or hit their turn wrong, they prefer to adjust to this by spinning around and going through a spot backwards. This involves back paddling out some into the center of the water flow and then letting the water pull you through backwards. This can be very dangerous, and is usually done by people who think they know what they are doing on low rated water. I liken this maneuver to backing up on the freeway because you overshot your off ramp. You assume that everyone else can just go around you, and that they know what you are thinking. It’s also another good reason why several boats should not to hit fast water at the same time. But the mentality is akin to playing your slice in golf.

Regardless, I have now lost my patience for it, because that is what brought about our crash. Essentially we hit the off ramp right as they were backing up. I could see by the look on Jim’s face he knew he had cut us off. I had to quickly choose between slamming into them or turning wide and slamming into a fallen tree. I chose the tree. That was my second mistake, I should have rammed them. The tree hit the boat like a hand brushing something off a table. Jackson took a smack to the head as we rolled into the water. The water was very deep at that point so we just got pushed under. When we came up the other side, Jackson was screaming which told me he didn’t drown. The boat was full of water but right side up. I grabbed Jack and put him back in the boat, swam along with the boat guiding it, and worked at collecting the paddle and dry bag floating on my other side. My favorite ankle smacked a large rock underneath the water, and that was the only sense of the bottom I had.

We collected on a sand bar about forty yards away. There was a group of other boaters there, many of whom had done the same thing. “You just went through the Washing Machine,” one of the guides told me standing there half elated, “but you did exactly what you should do in a wipe out – great job. I mean, you did exactly what you are supposed to do. You didn’t panic at all.” I could tell by the look on his face he was surprised by this for some reason. I just smiled at him and tried to avoid the impulse of hitting him with the paddle. My son was crying, my ankle hurt, I am soaking wet, Jim had a sheepish look on his face and was trying not to look me in the eye, and this clown wanted to revisit the moment together.

Jim judged my mood and decided to stick to consoling Jackson. I took a quick inventory of the boat and thanked Jesus he made me a Gear Geek. My Sea Line Dry back and the Portage Pack I bought from REI for $10 on clearance paid off in spades (I know an undervalued asset when I see one). After I checked everything and my new friends returned our canoe upright, I went to my son. He had begun calling for his mother and Jim was at a loss. Even my hugs at that point would do, so I pulled out the ultimate weapon. I broken open a bag of M&M’s and gave him a bottle of chocolate milk I had in the cooler. Suddenly, the crying stopped, and was followed by lots of laughter as the other fathers appreciated my quick minded move on my son.

Ode to Eddie Rabbit

The last half to ¾ of a mile of river was blessed with a consistently thick rain. So regardless of our tip over, by the time we got to the pick up point everyone looked as if they had gone into the drink. Even as we waited for the bus to come pick us up and take us up the hill it continued to pour. Jackson and I waited to go up when the bus returned. We loaded up our gear in the back and jumped in. The bus made it about 30 yards up hill when it stalled. That’s 30 yards of a half mile trip. Up hill. Very up hill. We all got off and walked.

The bus was dripping oil and blew smoke like a monster. Yes, a monster, just ask Jackson. It was the evil bus dragon chasing him up the hill, a jeep trail hill no less. Did I mention that I had sprained my ankle just a few hours before? Jackson was so scared he insisted on riding on my shoulders, up hill, to the car, a half mile, in the rain, on my swollen ankle. The bus, God bless it, made it up hill with our gear breathing fire the whole way.


Jim, Logan, Jackson, I, and about 70 other Dad’s and boys decided on Saturday night to return to Kansas City. The four of us went out for dinner first in Camdenton. Jim and I enjoyed a nice surf and turf special while the boys enjoyed corn dogs, fries, and endless laughter. They ran around the restaurant and charmed the snot out of people and we got caught up on Dad stuff.

The fireworks planned for Saturday night had been cancelled due to rain. It rained through dinner. It rained all the way home.

All in all, we had a wonderful time. The weather was crap, the vendors were less than remarkable, but my experiences with my son were priceless. In a way I am glad we had the accident on the water, it gave Jackson a real respect for the river. After our spill each time we met active water, Jackson would turn around and tell me, “Dad…take your time. We are in no hurry. No hurry Dad, take your time.”


At 11:34 PM, Blogger Aaron said...

Great pictures, great story. Things have to go wrong somewhere on trips like these - it makes for better stories/memories. At least you didn't hurt your ankle. See you in three weeks.


At 12:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

glen & lola say

We really enjoyed reading your story, and we can't believe you thought to make such a father son trip this soon in Jackson's life. We are impressed!


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