I Learned to Paddle. Canoe?

By Jeffery Cohen

“Three glorious days in the great outdoors. A chance to commune with Mother Nature. The adventure of a lifetime.” That’s how my brother and his girlfriend described it when they enlisted me for a three-day canoe trip riding the whitewater of the Delaware River. With a promise like that, how could I say no?

As the sun began to rise, I stood at the banks of the mighty river with nineteen fellow adventure seekers, pairing off, making certain that each canoe had at least one experienced canoeist. That is, until they came to me and the only other person left – a poor soul who’d just moved east from Arizona, and claimed the only water he’d ever been near was in a swimming pool. Since neither of us had ever even held a paddle, whatever that was, we figured we’d make the perfect pair – incompetence and inexperience. How could we lose? Relying on dumb luck, we set sail. I told you, I knew nothing about canoes.

The first day went fairly well, once we stopped going around in circles. Of course, there were kinks two newbies had to work out. “Don’t stand up like that!” I warned.

“Whoa, I didn’t know these things tipped over so easy,” my companion answered as he swayed like a tightrope walker trying to keep his balance on the high wire.

“And we have to back up,” I explained. “I dropped my paddle into the water.”

“Alright. But how do you put this thing in reverse?”

It took a while, but once we got the hang of it and relaxed, we began to enjoy the surroundings. Birds twittered in the trees, squirrels and rabbits frolicked in the brush, the river’s water gently lapped against the shore line…and then we heard it.

Off in the distance, it began like a faint crack of thunder. As we drew closer, it sounded more like the booming of cannons. Then echoes of metal crashing and crumbling against rock, mixed with the roar of rushing water.

“It’s the falls!” a voice sounded.

“The falls?” the group answered. “WHAT FALLS?”

It was the famous Dingman’s Falls. Simply put, a drastic drop, treacherous white water, sharp rocks…sunk boats. As we rounded the bend, we watched a wave of canoes melting into the swell, flipping over, being thrown into the air. We sat there like bobbing apples waiting to be sucked up by disaster when pure fear spawned an idea.

“Why don’t we pull the boats out of the water and carry them around this thing?” I asked. Everyone in the group agreed with me – everyone except my brother, who gave out a blood-curdling war hoop and started paddling toward the falls.

My jaw hung. “Is he crazy?” I screamed. “They’ll never make it. They’re gonna flip over. They’ll drown.” My eyes darted back and forth as I watched their paddles jab the water, their canoe plowing into white froth. “Look at them go. They’re through the first rapids!” I was amazed. “They’re doing it.” I gripped my paddle with new found courage and screamed, “What are we waiting for? Let’s go!” Everyone dug deep, water splashing behind us as we followed my brother’s lead.

“They’re doing it.” I cried. “They’re almost through the white water,” I bellowed as we raced forward. “They’re gonna make it,” I shrieked as we hit the first rapid. “They’re…they’re…sinking! BACKPADDDLLLEEE!” But it was too late. Whipped up white water was already swallowing us. Banged and battered canoes were tossed and scattered in every direction. Mountains of water towered over head, then came crashing down on us. My partner and I paddled feverishly. In desperation, we prayed, we held on for dear life and somehow in our panic, our boat miraculously found its way through the stony maze, spitting us out into calm water. There in the quiet of the river, dribs and drabs of battered crafts lay limp. That’s when I spotted my brother sitting calmly in his submerged canoe, the water up to his neck.

“Are you alright?” I called out. He nodded. “Do you know how funny you look?” I laughed as we drew up next to him, relieved to be a survivor.

“If you think this is funny…” My brother smiled. “Remember…your sleeping bags and all of your supplies are in our boat. Pretty funny, huh?” I wasn’t laughing. Now he was.

The next day a fog rolled in that was so heavy you couldn’t see the canoe ahead of you. We decided to pull the boats ashore and set up camp. That’s when the rains came. We were already so wet, we hardly noticed. So we propped our canoes upside down and slept under them until about three in the morning when we got our wake up call.

“Alright everybody. Listen up,” a gravelly voice grumbled. “You gotta git. This here is private property. Git me? Just take yer stuff and git. I mean it. You git, or there will be trouble.” With that, the stranger disappeared into the fog.

We debated ignoring his warning, but too many of us had seen the movie Deliverance. We knew that when a man says “git,” he means “git.” We got.

The final day, the river was like glass, the sun big and bright, a welcome change to weary travelers. As I leaned back and felt the warmth on my face, the smell of fresh air, I became philosophical. You do that after near disaster.

Life sometimes has its rough spots, its waves and threats, but if you can just weather the storm and enjoy the journey, it’s clear canoeing ahead.

About this writer

  • Jeffery Cohen

    Jeffery Cohen

    Freelance writer and newspaper columnist, Jeffery Cohen, has written for Sasee, Lifetime and Read, Learn, Write. He’s won awards in Women-On-Writing Contest, Vocabula’s Well Written Contest, National League of American Pen Women’s’ Keats Competition, Southern California Genealogy Competition, and Writer’s Weekly writing contest.

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One Response to “I Learned to Paddle. Canoe?”

  1. Linda O'Connell says:

    Another enjoyable read. You are brave to attempt those rapids.

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