Feb 04 2016
Once upon a time… Well, yes, that lead‑in is a rather tired cliché. But it seems to fit. I should make it clear at the outset that this is no fairy‑story, however. And neither is it a tale of high adventure in the far North. It’s the story of a day trip, and it began on our doorstep. If you’re hoping for Dangerous River derring‑do, you’ll have to look somewhere else.
OK. That’s the preliminaries out of the way. I’ll begin again:
Once upon a time, Farwell and I lived in a cottage on the ‘Flow, an impoundment formed when The River was first dammed, back in the early years of the last century. (Our cottage was really a shack, lacking plumbing and — much of the time — electricity. No matter. “Cottage” sounds more romantic than shack, so cottage it will be.) Don’t jump to conclusions. The ‘Flow wasn’t a wilderness. Far from it. In summer it resembled an aquatic Times Square — though without the neon and the billboards. But there were still a few quiet corners and enclaves of wildness, and after Columbus Day had come and gone, we often had the place to ourselves.
On this particular January morning we were definitely in sole possession. It was an unusually temperate January, too, not unlike the January just ended. The ‘Flow, which usually froze up sometime in November, was almost entirely ice‑free. So we decided to go for a spin around the block by way of celebration. Not in our truck, though. In our Tripper (requiescat in pace). And soon we were cleaving through the water, on our way to a sheltered bay that was one of our favorite summertime haunts. But it was January, not June. The water wasn’t the sparkling blue of a smiling summer day. It was cold and dull and gray, echoing the mood and temper of a sullen sky — a sky fitfully illuminated by a watery winter sun that was now struggling to make itself felt through a veil of high cloud.
We should have payed more attention to that sky.
The outbound voyage went well. Despite having to meet a freshening sou’westerly breeze head on, we made the sheltered waters of the little bay in good time, thoroughly enjoying the rare treat of canoeing the ‘Flow in January. But our euphoria was short‑lived. In the few minutes it took us to make a quick circumnavigation of the bay, the freshening breeze had strengthened to half a gale, the springlike air had turned decidedly chill, and masses of dark cloud were spilling over the western hills. The flickering flame of the timorous sun was now snuffed out for good, and snow began to fall. At first only a few flakes scudded before the keening wind, but they grew in numbers by the second, and before we’d managed to draw the hoods of our anoraks close around our faces, the nearby hills had disappeared behind a dirty‑white drapery of blowing snow.
Our trip home was harrowing. Three‑foot rollers scudded down the length of the ‘Flow, lifting our stern and slamming us forward into the troughs. At times, it was all we could do to keep from broaching. But we were glad of the rollers nonetheless. They were our compass. With both shoreline and sun now lost to sight, we had only the wind and the waves and instinct to guide us — and instinct, as every boater knows, is a mighty poor pilot.
Fortunately, the luck which is said (on very little evidence) to safeguard drunks and fools was with us that day. We made it safely back to our cottage. It’s true that our landfall wasn’t much to boast of. A breaking wave caught us just as the shore came into view. And then the bow grounded on a rock. A broach seemed inevitable. But Farwell leapt out, wrenched the Tripper round, and hauled her ashore by main force.
A farcical interval followed, during which we struggled to drag the unladen canoe up the now snow‑covered slope that fronted our cottage, slipping and cursing and sliding back one foot for every two feet we climbed. But we eventually got the Tripper back on its rack. Then we headed inside to change out of our sodden clothes and warm the inner paddler with big mugs of hot cocoa.
Viewed in a rosy glow of reminiscence, our little adventure appears a comedy of errors. But it could easily have been a tragedy, and as we watched the drifts mount ever higher under the plate‑glass windows that overlooked the ‘Flow, we saw just how lucky we had been. In our hurry to make the most of the unseasonable open water, we’d dressed as we would have for a walk in the hills. Our wetsuits and drytops had remained behind on their hangers. Had we broached in deep water — and we came near to doing so several times — we’d likely have rolled right over. It’s anyone’s guess how we would have fared then. The water temperature was close to the freezing point. The waves were building higher with every passing minute. And no landmarks were visible. We’d have been lucky to survive.
Yet the fury of the snowstorm soon abated. By nightfall, the wind had dropped to a whisper, and the clouds had moved on. A full moon shone down on the ‘Flow, its light reflected by the crystal glaze of new ice already forming in the bays. Only the howls from a foraging pack of coyotes broke the solemn stillness of what was now a true winter landscape.
All in all, it had been an instructive day, and we’d gotten a stern lesson in the consequences of something called… Read more…
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