Just an Old Canoe

I don’t have much left from my childhood, I’m sure most agree that when you’re 44 years old there really isn’t a viable reason to be wearing your high school letterman’s jacket. Those little league trophies were cool… When I was 12. And I seem to be getting along just fine without my Van Halen 1984 album. One of the few things I do have is my canoe.

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Many a family member learned to paddle on the Orange Rocket

I can remember when my dad brought it home. It was orange then, and was missing a seat. Dad probably got it for $50 bucks, or took it in trade for something.  He put a seat in it, and it became my means of transportation. The brand was Monarch. Most of the paint was scratched off, but she was water tight, paddled well, and fit me just fine. I was probably 12 when I would take off onto the little lake we lived on to catch bass. I would dream I was in the Bassmaster Classic competing against Jimmy Houston and Roland Martin. I’d read about them in the magazine stacks at the school library, I thought I could win Bassmaster in that little canoe. Many a bass caught on Mirror Lake put me over the top by a few ounces for the Mirror Lake Bassmaster title.

I had a couple of good boyhood friends, Kris Otis, and Jason Labriola. Kris went to school with me, and we’d spend most of our summer together shooting hoops, playing baseball, and trying to be cool. Jason lived in Massachusetts… he was cool. Ask him and he’d tell you.  His parents had a camp on the other side of the lake. Jay would arrive sometime in June with stories of the big town of Wakefield, Massachusetts. All three of us would pile in the canoe, paddle out, and tip it over. We’d roll each other around and around. Kris earned the nickname “airtank” because he could stay under forever. When we’d get bored trying to drown ourselves we’d duck under the capsized canoe and poke our heads up in the air pocket underneath. Under there, safe from the ears of adults, we’d lie about all the girls we kissed, and how much beer we stole from our dads.  We all knew the other person was lying, but the stories were good. I don’t really talk to those guys anymore. There’s really no reason why, we just grew apart. If I ran into one of them today I bet we’d talk about those days on the lake and how things turned out a lot different than we planned.

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The old canoe flip was always a fun joke to play on your friends.

When I got a little older my parents and their friends decided on a camping trip on the Saco River. We’d canoe the rapids, camp, and have a grand time.  Kris had to come with us, I needed a canoe partner, my parents were happy to let me invite him.  Off  Kris and I went  in the orange rocket. the rapids seemed like they would swallow us up. With Kris in the bow and I in the stern we rolled through rapid after rapid in my canoe.  Every other canoe on the trip capsized at least once. My parents capsized with my brother Jason in theirs. When they tried to get Jason back in the canoe the boy let out a string of swear words that would’ve made a drunk sailor blush. Needless to say it’s probably been close to 30 years, and I don’t think Jason has been in a canoe since.

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Loading up the Astro van for a trip down the river.

Kris and I were as cocky as barn yard roosters when we reached the last set of rapids. We’d remained dry on our first ever big rapids trip. One more small ripple and we were champions, at least in our own minds. Then I put us on the rocks. Over we went, and the orange canoe quickly folded under the current into a nice u-shape on the rocks. I was devastated. The canoe was stuck, and we couldn’t move her. Kris and I made our way to shore, and I promptly took an ass chewing for leaving the canoe in the river. That’s when Winthrop P. Houghton Jr. saved me. “Wink” as he was called, was a family friend. A free spirit, and a real Mainer. He lived in an old barn that we was forever trying to convert into a home. His bedroom was in the cupola. He had brown lab that would either bite you, or lick you to death, you never knew which. He was able to fix anything, and do some amazing finish work as a carpenter. Wink and my Dad were partners of sorts although I don’t think there was every any formal agreement. They both just seemed to work well together. Wink was a kind man, perhaps the most kind person I ever met. He didn’t want anything other than to be present in his life, and the lives of those he cared about.

 

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My canoe on Wink’s truck. I stole that truck to get to basketball practice. I missed my ride because I was tracking a deer. That’s another story.

 

Wink took a rope, waded through the current, and tied it to the canoe. He attached the rope to a tree with a loop, tied a weird loop knot down the rope, ran the tag end of the rope forming a Z.  With a quick tug the canoe was free and we hand lined it up to shore. Wink had used  mechanical advantage to free my canoe. We were all impressed. She was shaped like a U but we stomped on her as best we could to straighten her out. When you sit in her now she still has a nice bend, and even better memories of that day.

Not too long after that I went to boot camp. My canoe was used by anyone that wanted to use it. My brother Billy probably used it most. Every winter she was tucked away under the porch to sleep until ice out. Where she would be capsized, dinged, dented, and fished out of again. I don’t think it ever let anyone down.

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In her winter resting place at my childhood home.

At the midway mark of my Marine Corps career I came home for college. I was married with kids and not a ton of money. I wanted to get back into fishing and teach the kids how to fish. I brought the canoe up from Newfield to Orono and promptly painted it green. The Orange Rocket was now the Green Jet. Tyler and Emily took their first canoe rides in that canoe. My good friend Eric and I almost died of dehydration on a day long fishing trip. My buddy Chad and I had a day where we caught over 100 bass on the Penobscot in less than 6 hours.  It was only temporary. I had move again, and the canoe went to rest at my parents new home, off the lake. I don’t think it was used much for the next 10 years.

We’re using her now! She’s been living at camp Ernest Living. My daughter Emily and I took her on her maiden voyage on the West Branch. Emily was in the bow, I was in the stern, Emily was looking for rocks. We hit one, tipped over, lost my beer, and my mind.  We emptied her out, I found my mind, and Emily went on to catch her first fish on a fly. My friend Greg and I carried her down to Hale Pond last year and spent the evening remembering when we were bullet proof. We didn’t catch any fish but that’s not really what that night was about.

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Greg in the Bow with Katahdin in the background

My son and I took it duck hunting one morning. I sunk in the mud up to my chest and the only thing that stopped me from going under was the side of the canoe. I thought we would have to call the fire department to pull me out. That’s another story too.

This winter Billy and I did something we’ve talked about doing for a while. We took my canoe to a way back pond.

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The best time to get a canoe in is in the winter.

It’s  about 2 miles from the nearest parking area, on the edge of a small lake. If you paddle across the lake you can portage up to a mountain pond that is filled with native brook tout. We tied it to Billy’s Bearcat snowmobile and I followed on mine. Billy’s son Eli supervised, he’s really good at supervising. We got her in and cribbed up so the water in the spring won’t bother her. I know that when I hike in this spring she will be waiting for me with orange showing through her scratched green paint, her slight curve from the Saco rock, and more memories than one guy should have from an old $50 dollar canoe. My hope is that someday I’ll hike out there with my grandkids, show them the secret path to the stashed canoe, and tell them that she’s all theirs if they promise to remember the man who gave it to them, and the stories he tells them about his adventures.

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Billy and I with the canoe all tucked away and ready for another lifetime of memories.

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