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About 50m ahead of me, Rob sets down his bags, turns around and begins waving his hands, instructing me to cross New York State Route 28. An unremarkable request, except that on my back is a US government-issue canvas duffel full of kit and sitting upside down and balanced on my shoulders is a 14ft, 65lb canoe.
I turn, slowly, as the ends of the canoe overcome inertia. The stern bangs into a tree. The bow swings out into traffic, and drivers treat me as they would a turtle – they avoid me as an act of mercy but certainly aren’t stopping to wait. I find a gap, chug across the road, then down a short hill and past a spillway to where the canoe belongs: in the water, in Sixth Lake, in the Adirondack wilderness.
Rob is my brother; it’s day two of a three-day trip we’re making down the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. The entire route, finished in 2006, runs 740 miles from upstate New York through Quebec to northern Maine, connecting lakes and rivers with carries, such as the one one I’m now doing across Route 28. A carry is what it sounds like: you get out of the water and carry all your stuff to some more water, in some cases miles away. Like any travel, a carry will eventually punish you for every extra sock. My brother and I aren’t worried about our socks, though, because we have the wrong canoe. It is too heavy.
We have brought it for two reasons. First, it is the canoe we happen to own. It belonged to our grandmother, Jane. She died just after her 100th birthday in 2015, leaving five daughters, 13 grandchildren, a house in Annapolis, Maryland, a canoe and a poem that instructed her daughters not to cry “because I will be there in my canoe”.
And that’s the second reason: I am carrying the wrong canoe across Route 28 as an act of ancestor worship.
We had put in on a Friday afternoon at the resort town of Old Forge, wedging into Jane’s canoe three 30-litre dry bags, two backpacks and two heavy plastic canisters designed to keep bears out of our food. These, too, are the wrong kind. Bears in parts of the Adirondacks have learned how to open our brand of canister, but it’s 2020, Americans have been forced to vacation outdoors, and we are assured by outfitters that Adirondack-proof bear canisters can’t be had for love nor money.
On our first day, Rob had gestured to the canoe and asked whether I wanted to paddle stern. It’s the more demanding position. The stern paddler has to steer, both following and offsetting the bow paddler’s stroke. Because he is my brother, I knew he was actually suggesting that he take the stern. The two of us have lived by the same pattern since I was eight and he was 15, hanging out in his room while he lifted weights and listened to Foreigner: he suggests that I do something, I think it’s a pretty cool idea, and then I do it. I stepped into the bow, weight low, foot on the centre line.
When Jane was a girl in Port Arthur, Texas, she paddled her own pirogue, a Cajun flat-bottomed canoe. She was a good shot with a rifle – when she died, my mother discovered a box of trophies for marksmanship. Jane liked to travel. She liked to camp. She liked to serve just ice cream for dinner. When she was a young woman in Detroit, Henry Ford once asked her to dance. The year I turned 21, Jane was the first adult to offer me a beer, one of her pony bottles of Heineken. She drank half of hers, flung the rest in my grandfather’s garden by the kitchen door, then looked at me, her conspirator. “I like to throw it in his flowers,” she said.
My grandfather, a naval engineer, made the family a wooden rowboat and named it Buttercup, but the canoe belonged to Jane. She bought it in the early 1970s with her own money, earned teaching archery at a Girl Scouts camp for a summer. A decade later, on a trip home from the creek, Jane told my grandfather that he hadn’t tied the canoe securely to the car. She was right. The canoe bounced to the street, and leaked through patches over two holes until my brother and I finally bevelled out the fibreglass for a proper repair in 2010. Jane was no longer strong enough to paddle, but wanted to know that the canoe worked. Rob painted over the repairs with two yellow comic-book “kapow!” explosions, a tribute to a family argument. Canoes don’t always have names. They’re too small, and there are too many of them. But three years ago my daughter, then eight and enchanted with the patches, offered a name we all agreed that actual Jane would have adored: Exploding Jane.
On our first evening, just east of Old Forge, Rob, from the stern, had suggested we could reach hull speed with longer, gentler strokes. He was actually telling me that I was pulling too hard, making Jane difficult to steer. I was briefly pleased, and then I remembered I am 45 and he is 52. I settled in and within an hour we made the single campsite on DeCamps Island. It is a snug, sovereign feeling to have your own island for the night. We poured boiled water into dried beef stroganoff, then ate it out of the bag with titanium spoons on the western bluff of the island, watching the sunset. When it gets dark in the woods, there are only two things you can do: read or drink. We had put in at Old Forge without any whiskey, so I pulled out a headlamp and a paperback, Atwood Manley’s Rushton and His Times in American Canoeing. I will assume here that you have not read it.
The inherent value of a canoe is that it moves fast through the water, sneaks easily into the shallows and doesn’t slow you down too much on land. These are ancient and universal design requirements; it’s how the Vikings got their longships all the way down to the Black Sea, for example. Pre-Columbian Native Americans built canoes of birchbark, stretched over a wood frame and sealed with pine pitch, to move along the lakes of what are now southern Canada and the northern United States. But you can’t draw a straight line from a birchbark to Jane. White Americans started canoeing the same way they would later take to the blues and pop music: they re-imported it from Britain.
Manley’s book documents how in the 1850s, John MacGregor, a Scottish Muscular Christian, took a trip across North America and fell in love with birchbarks and sealskin kayaks. He built what he called a canoe – a slim, double-ended boat with a cedar deck and a light sailing rig – then sailed, dragged and paddled it, Viking-like, around Europe. He called it the Rob Roy, after one of his own ancestors, and wrote a book about the trip. With a group of Rob Roy enthusiasts, he founded the Royal Canoe Club in London in 1866 (the then Prince of Wales – later Edward VII – became the club’s commodore in 1867). A New York Canoe Club followed in 1871.
In the late 1870s J Henry Rushton, a boat builder in Canton, New York, with a gift for marketing, had shifted to making Rob Roys, working with adventurers who made sure to mention his name. Around the same time, rail lines from New York City and evocative new travel guides opened up the Adirondacks to the novel idea of the “outdoorsman” – a rich person who voluntarily sleeps outside. Outdoorsmen in upstate New York relied on guides to take them out in specialised rowboats that weighed about 70 pounds, almost the same as Exploding Jane.
Then, in 1880, Rushton got a letter from George Washington Sears, a trapper and Civil War sharpshooter. Sears wanted to paddle without paying a guide, but he stood at five-foot-three and weighed only 105lb, and needed a boat he could carry alone. He asked Rushton for a canoe that weighed less than 20lb. After several trials, Rushton built a 10.5lb boat – the Sairy Gamp, named for a Dickens drunk who never took water.
Sears wrote letters about paddling alone in the Adirondacks to Forest and Stream, a magazine for outdoorsmen. The letters were popular, and Rushton began to sell little canoes in his own catalogues. The Sairy Gamp now sits in the collection of Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Getting in a tiny boat for no reason at all is not an ancient behaviour. Someone had to invent it.
On the second day, I claim the stern and am sorely disappointed. I’ve never been in charge of this canoe before, and Jane doesn’t track well – it won’t stay in a straight line, even when you’re not trying to overpower your own brother. Jane is wide and flat-bottomed, which means it’s stable and buoyant. The cost is that it has a short attention span, and constantly needs to be pulled with a draw stroke back on course.
The EM White company of Old Town, Maine, which built Exploding Jane in fibreglass, no longer exists. But Jerry Stelmok of Island Falls Canoe, who builds wooden canoes off of the old EM White forms, tells me after our trip that Jane was likely built to sell to operators of US summer camps. Like Vikings, camp counsellors needed something hard to sink, easy to beach and reasonable to carry. When I ask Jerry whether 65lbs is just too heavy for long carries, he tells me that Jane is similar in shape and weight to the guide canoes that EM White built in the early 20th century. “The guides could do it,” he says. “They were just tough.”
On the third day we encounter four beaver dams. Here is how you get over a beaver dam with a canoe: you pull up abreast of it. Then you squelch out onto the long bumper of mud that tops it. Then, as the water begins to run through the impression your foot has left, you begin to feel bad for the poor beavers as you have a laboured conversation with your brother over how many bags you have to remove from the canoe to slide it sideways over the dam, a foot or so down to the new water level. Then, after shaking your foot in the water a bit, you place it, still muddy, back in the canoe.
By the fourth dam, you will no longer feel sorry for the beavers.
The last of the dams takes us to the town of Raquette Lake, and a bacon cheeseburger in a tent outside the Raquette Lake Hotel & Tap Room. Rob and I have a plan for a bonfire on the Hen and Chicken Islands in Raquette Lake, and the hardware store is selling split logs. They will only sell us a load of wood that will completely fill our canoe, and so we do just that – we completely fill our canoe.
This is a terrible idea, one we acknowledge to each other as we are carrying it out. By the time we leave town, there are about 12 knots of wind, kicking up waves on Raquette Lake. The load of wood has settled us lower in the water, and with the wind behind us we begin to surf a little – a fun way to get dumped. We back off to let the waves pass and a twin-hulled pontoon boat approaches us, running upwind at full speed.
We have discovered that paddling a canoe loaded with gear is a great conversation starter. Everyone else is car camping or motoring around, but we are pilgrims, headed from one place to another with our goods on our backs. People like that. Jane, built for teenagers to play without hurting themselves, is carrying the wood just fine. In the wind, under load, it is stable. Imperturbable.
The pontoon boat passes us, and the skipper raises his fist in a salute and cries, “YAAAAAAAAH!” into the wind. He is acknowledging us. We are two grown men in an old canoe we have filled with sleeping bags and logs, paddling somewhere far away for no reason at all.
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