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Oregon Family Magazine

Dad's Eye View - In the Wilds With Daddy

07/14/2010 ● By Anonymous
When my daughter Sally turned 8, I bought her a new wooden canoe paddle and burned her name into the blade. With the gift came a promise: In July she and I would take a three-day canoe trip on the river that flows past our house. We hung the paddle over her bed.

Sally was excited. In fact, we both were, envisioning summer canoe trips as something special we could do together every year. But as July neared, she grew apprehensive. “I’m afraid we’ll run out of food and starve to death,” she said. “I mean, there are no stores right along the river, are there?”

It made sense. In our disorganized household, around dinnertime my wife Betsy or I will go to the supermarket and buy something for supper with no more forethought than a dog knocking over a garbage can. Sally couldn’t picture another way.

“Not a problem,” I told her. “We’ll make a list of what we want for two breakfasts, three lunches and two dinners, and buy what we need before we go.”

In my younger days, I’d been on many canoe trips – all poorly planned. The most memorable was a four-day trip on which a pal and I set out with only two cases of beer, a big box of apples from my back yard, and a vague notion that we would somehow “live off the land.” Privation ensued.

When the big day came, Sally and I tied the boat onto the roof of the car, and my wife drove us about 60 miles upstream. About to shove off, we discovered that the cooler containing half our food, had been left at home. Oops. “What’ll we do?!” Sally asked, her worst fears suddenly justified.

“We’ll make peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch and open a can of beef stew for supper,” I said. “We’ll stop at a town along the way and buy more food for tomorrow night’s dinner. I’ve got $15.” She hugged her mother as though for the last time and clambered reluctantly into The Titanic.

But we had a great day. When we drifted, I read to Sally from “Huckleberry Finn.” When we paddled, we played at being Tom and Huck. Everyone we passed was either a pirate or an Indian. We ignored the jet-skis.

That night we camped on a wooded island. It’d been years since I’d pitched our tent and I’d forgotten how. I mistook its floor for its roof, so I invested the first 45 minutes unwisely. Sally has always been a stern (but fair) judge of parental competence and my hour-long, trial-and-error way of putting up the tent worried her. And the saggy result offered no reassurance. That night as we lay in our sleeping bags, the night bugs and various rustlings and scamperings scared Sally. But all she said was, “Gee Daddy, it’s hard to go to sleep with so many interesting noises.” I showed her my Bowie knife in case something REALLY interesting came along.

The next morning we breakfasted on toast and then paddled along to a riverside town to buy groceries. The fact that we’d spent right down to 11 cents frightened Sally. Trying to calm her anxiety, I said, “We can eat like pigs at every meal, and still not finish all this food. We don’t need any more money. Let’s shove off.” I tossed the coins into the water. Sally stared after them.

We had another companionable day of fun. But at 6 p.m., just as I was looking for a camping place, Sally said, “My tummy hurts, and I feel like I’m going to throw up. I want to go home. I want Mommy,” and tears streamed as from a ruptured hull. It was homesickness, sudden as a heart attack. It would’ve been nice if my wife could drive up and rescue us, but I knew she’d gone out-of-state and wouldn’t be home until much later. Sally gripped her stomach and wailed, “I WISH THIS WAS JUST A BAD DREAM!”

Subduing my anger to mere unhappiness, I said, “OK, we’ll keep going, and I’ll get you home sometime tonight.”

Sally almost smiled. She picked up her paddle and got busy. At dusk she put on her life jacket and we paddled on. A bat came out of the gloom and flapped around us. Totally creeped-out, I wanted to scream.

“Is that a bat?” Sally asked. “Yep,” I said forcing myself to sound casual. “Just one of nature’s creatures out shopping for bugs to eat. Just checking us out.” “Oh,” she said, taking my fake calmness for the real thing. She settled down in the bow of the boat and went to sleep as I paddled on and on. The water was ink, the shoreline a shadow. Around midnight I saw the lights of our house. I beached the boat and helped Sally stagger up the riverbank and into her own bed.

Even though my bungling had a lot to do with it, the fact that Sally could get homesick during what I’d seen as 24-karat Quality Time hurt my feelings. Unloading the canoe in the darkness, I picked up the little “Sally” paddle. My angry Inner Brat told me to throw it into the black river.  Instead I took it indoors, wiped it off, and hung it back up on Sally’s wall. The paddle wasn’t a trophy, but it was a souvenir of an adventure shared, and that’s something. Maybe we’ll try it again in a few years.