A paean to paddling

Posted Aug. 08, 2013, at 4:43 p.m.

Thanks to Paul Manning, I decided not to buy an outboard motor for my canoe. “Why mess with perfection?” he said, as we sat on the bakehouse porch Sunday. “Boating perfection consists of a canoe, the paddle, and nothing involving internal combustion engines.”

Being an expert in both conservation and marine engineering, Paul was accustomed to going to sea on vessels the horsepower of which was measured in the tens of thousands. My talk of attaching 5 hp to a bracket on the stern of a canoe was a clear red flag — a slippery slope. He had only to point out how much more pleasure he derives from propelling a boat with a well-wrought wooden paddle.

Paul just loads his canoe on the two-wheeled garden cart and walks it down Main Street to the Castine boat landing. No petrochemicals involved. Fuel: a few blueberry muffins. To Paul’s way of thinking, just paddling from the town dock to the yacht club dock and back is a quality voyage.

Nonetheless, the allure of going farther faster had spurred my hankering for a motor. On the big lakes up north, I reasoned, with the canoe full to the gunwales with tent, stove, sleeping bags, large dog, we would extend our reach by moving at 6 or 7 mph rather than 1 or 2.

“But why go to the big lake? You know that marshy area as you head up toward Hatch’s Cove?” said Paul. “There’s nothing like drifting in there and just sitting … or going over to Ram Island and getting mussels off of the shoals. That’s all you need.”

He could probably back it up with an amortization of motor purchase price over time given frequency of three-hour drives to the big lake; cost of oil and gas for car and outboard, etc. Why work so hard to make the money to buy the engine to get there faster, only to miss all that there was to see paddling the same route? His Thoreauvian arguments held sway.

John McPhee’s research into the bark canoe proves the point that, with a few simple adaptations, the canoe serves all purposes. “A canoe with a curving, rocker bottom could turn with quick response in white water. A canoe with a narrow bow and stern and a somewhat V-sided straight bottom could hold its course across a strong lake wind. A canoe with a narrow beam moved faster than any other and was therefore the choice for war.” (“Survival of the Bark Canoe,” Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1982)

My canoe is narrow in the beam and bow, with a bottom responsive in white water. It holds a straight course if I have a good fellow paddler—and if my dog, Gus, will sit still when we paddle near ducks. A Penobscot Indian of 1750 would see my canoe and know what it is, what it was designed to do, how to paddle it. And he would see no need to add an engine. He would know it is perfection.

A canoe is also a feeling as right as a sonnet. It has an octave of sounds: water lapping at the bow, the suctioning funnel in the water after a strong stroke, pounding of the bow leaping the crest of a rolling wave and landing in the trough, drumming of the paddle on the gunwale as I reach forward to pull the canoe forward, marsh grass combing the bottom on the way to Hatch’s Cove and the sound of nothing but the canoeist’s own breathing when the lake or pond is glass-still.

I realized only later how economical Paul’s approach had been when he anticipated my disaster. I owe him a trip to Ram Island for mussels, or at least another blueberry muffin.

Todd Nelson is the former principal of Adams School in Castine. He is now Head of School at The School in Rose Valley, Pa.

 

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