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Sierra magazine
Swimming With Canoes

By John McPhee

I grew up in a summer camp--Keewaydin--whose specialty was canoes and canoe travel. At the home base, near Middlebury, Vermont, were racks and racks of canoes, at least a hundred canoes--E. M. Whites and Chestnuts, mainly. They were very good wood-and-canvas keeled or keelless canoes, lake or river canoes. We were in them every day wherever we were, in and out of Vermont. We were like some sort of crustaceans with our rib-and-planking exo-skeletons, and to this day I do not feel complete or safe unless I am surrounded by the protective shape of a canoe.

Now and again, Keewaydin let us take our canoes not so much onto the water as into it, during swim period. We went swimming with our canoes. We jounced. Jouncing is the art of propelling a canoe without a paddle. You stand up on the gunwales near the stern deck and repeatedly flex and unflex your knees. The canoe rocks, slaps the lake, moves forward. Sooner or later, you lose your balance and fall into the water, because the gunwales are slender rails and the stern deck is somewhat smaller than a pennant. From waters deeper than you were tall, you climbed back into your canoe. If you think that's easy, try it.

After three or four splats, and with a belly pink from hauling it over gunwales, you lost interest in jouncing. What next? You sat in your canoe and deliberately overturned it. You leaned hard to one side, grabbed the opposite gunwale, and pulled. Out you went and into the water. This was, after all, swim period. Now you rolled your canoe, an action it resists far less when it is loaded with water. You could make your canoe spiral like a football inside the lake.

And before long you found the air pocket. Having jounced and spiralled to the far end of your invention span, you ducked beneath the surface and swam in under your upside-down canoe. You rose slowly to miss a thwart--feeling above you, avoiding a bump on the head--and then your eyes, nose, mouth were in air, among chain-link streaks of white and amber light, the shimmers of reflection in a Quonset grotto. Its vertical inches were few but enough. Your pals got in there with you and your voices were tympanic in the grotto. Or you just hung out under there by yourself. With a hand on a thwart, and your feet slowly kicking, you could breathe normally, see normally, talk abnormally, and wait indefinitely for a change of mood. You were invisible to the upside, outside world. Even more than when kneeling in a fast current, you were one with your canoe.

Kneeling in a fast current. Once in a while, we went to what is now called Battell Gorge, north of Middlebury, to learn to deal with really fast, pounding, concentrated flow. Otter Creek, there, undergoes an abrupt change in physiographic character. After meandering benignly through the marshes, woodlots, and meadows of the Champlain Valley, it encounters a large limestone outcrop, which it deeply bisects. By a factor of three or four, the stream narrows and the water squeezes into humps, haystacks, souse holes, and standing waves, as it drops ten feet in a hundred yards. Then it emerges from the high limestone walls and the darkness of overhanging hemlocks into the light of a pool so wide it seems to be a pond.

Like horse people, we showed up some distance above the head of the gorge with trailers--racked trailers that each carried seven canoes. The gorge was a good place to learn how to deal with them in white water because it was violent but short. In that narrow, roaring flume, you didn't have to choose the best route--didn't have to look for what the voyageurs called the fil d'eau. There was pretty much one way to go. But you got the sense of a canoe flying in three dimensions; and the more you did it the slower it seemed, the shoot separating itself into distinct parts, as if you were in a balloon rising in sunlight and falling in the shadows of clouds.

One time, when I was about twelve, I went into the gorge in a very old canoe that was missing its stern seat. (We didn't take the better boats there.) Two of us were paddling it. I was kneeling against the stern thwart, which was so far back it was only eight or ten inches from gunwale to gunwale, the size of my young butt. My right knee was on the canoe's ribs, and my right leg extended so far back that my foot was wedged in the V of the stern when the bucking canoe turned over. Billy Furey was my partner, and we were doing all we could to keep things even, but whatever we did wasn't good enough and we flipped near the top of the gorge. Billy was ejected. Among the countless wonders of the simple design of the native American canoe is the fact that it ejects its paddlers when it capsizes.

This one could not eject me, because my foot was stuck. I struggled to pull the foot free, but it wouldn't come. Upside down in billows of water, I could not get out. Understand: I have a lifelong tendency to panic. Almost anything will panic me--health, money, working with words. Almost anything--I'm here to tell you--but an overturned canoe in a raging gorge. When I was trapped in there, if panic crossed my mind it went out the other side. I had, after all, time and time again been swimming with canoes. There was purpose in letting us do that--a thought that had never occurred to me. After I realized I was caught and was not going to be coming out from under that canoe, I reached for the stern quarter-thwart, took hold of it, and pulled my body upward until my eyes, nose, and mouth were in the grotto. There, in the dancing light, I rode on through the gorge, and when the water calmed down at the far end I gave the canoe half a spiral and returned to the open sunlight.

John McPhee is a staff writer at the New Yorker. He is the author of 28 books. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey. Copyright © 2010 by John McPhee. From Silk Parachute, reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Illustration by Jacob Thomas

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