Woody Canoes

Canoes in a familiar position -- upside down.

According to historians, Native Americans made the first canoe out of birch bark approximately 10,000 years ago.

Two minutes later it tipped over.

Despite that long chronicle of capsizes, recent statistics show canoes remain among the most popular types of watercraft.

Personally, I've never got along with them.

One summer my newspaper assigned to go on a canoe trip down the Buffalo River with then-Governor Ray Blanton. 

I joined the Governor, his son and an entourage from the Department of Conservation. I would write a story to promote the state's Scenic Rivers program.

I was partnered with an "expert canoer." He wore a vest that was a quilt-work of patches attesting to his paddling prowess, and a similarly-festooned hat. He was the Babe Ruth of canoers.

He briefed me on the principles of paddling, and we shoved off.

We made it about 100 yards downstream, to the first riffle, before we capsized. My expert paddler lost his fancy hat.

We got the canoe upright, bailed it out, and set off again. Another riffle, another capsize.

After a third dunking, I suggested that perhaps I could just dog-paddle alongside the canoe and save having to climb in and out.

The Governor got a chuckle out of it.

A year or so later I went on another trip down the Hiwassee River for a magazine story about white-water canoeing.

The canoe club that arranged the trip assigned me another paddling expert for a partner. This one managed to keep our canoe upright. 

Well, mostly.

We started off great, shooting several churning rapids without a hitch. After negotiating a particularly fast stretch, I asked my partner to pull over to the bank so I could photograph some canoes coming through behind us.

He paddled over, reached up, and grabbed an overhanging limb to hold us steady in the current. We didn't see the hornets nest on the limb.

Suddenly the air was buzzing with angry hornets. My partner, holding onto the limb on which the nest was attached, was dive-bombed. He let out a yelp and flipped the canoe.

I not only didn't get stung, but managed to hold my camera above water.

When my partner bobbed up, I told him about my good luck.

He said, “Swell.” 

I thought he was being sarcastic, but then I realized he was taking about his face, which was beginning to swell up like a lumpy basketball.

We completed the five-mile journey, negotiating roaring rapids as my partner squinted through the one eye that wasn't swollen entirely shut. 

He also had several stings on his lips, making them puffy and swollen. I suppose that accounted for all the mumbling and muttering he was doing.

I wrote the magazine story, and when it came out I sent my paddling pardner a copy. 

I thought he might be so impressed he'd invite me on another canoe trip.

For some reason, I never heard back from him.

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