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A Yankee Notebook

June 21, 2013


EAST MONTPELIER, VT – Robins are singing all around the yard; the pine trees are making love, dusting our vehicles with their yellow pollen; the lawn is rioting; the ponds and rivers have warmed up enough to be relatively safe for old gaffers. But the boats are tucked away in the barn. Every time I go in there, I’m aware of a faint rustling and accusatory stares. I can hear them saying, this is not what we signed up for, or were created for. We’re destined to be on the water this time of year, and some of us haven’t been out for two years. Is there something the matter with you?

Well, yes, there is: I miscalculated. I figured that when I gave up breakfasting in the dark, arriving at the lumber yard at seven, working all day, and closing the books at ten, I’d have all kinds of time and energy for almost anything I wanted to do. I could fish the little ponds of Vermont and New Hampshire, maybe walk the Long Trail, or row my guide boat the length of Lake Champlain. And I’ve always wanted to reprise the night I spent on top of Mount Marcy 57 years ago. Partial retirement would at last open all those golden doors.

It hasn’t. The old axiom about retirement being busier than working turns out to be true. It’s not quite clear to me why. I have the same responsibilities around the house: mow the lawns, get in the firewood, clapboard the garage, keep the rubbish separated and flowing in the right directions; you know the drill. But many things seem to take so much longer than they used to – including just getting ready to do them.

Meanwhile, the boats sit there in their slings, or nested together spoonlike, lovers in a narrow bed. And they’re all speaking to me of water. I hear the immortal words of old Ratty to his friend Mole: “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats....Simply messing...about in boats...or with boats... In or out of 'em it doesn't matter. Nothing seems to matter, that's the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don't; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you're always busy, and you never do anything in particular; and when you've done it there's always something else to do, and you can do it if you like, but you'd much better not.”

There’s a 15-foot 1938 Thompson canoe up there in the attic of the barn. Made in Peshtigo, Wisconsin. Its original owner started stripping it for restoration when he retired, but fell afoul of the same problems bedeviling me. He called to see if I was interested in it. You bet I was. But instead of continuing his work (which still would be going on today), I took it to a restorer over in Maine, who did a beautiful job on it. He added a pair of floppy bronze rings to the bow and stern plates, fixtures that had been given to me by an old student of mine who later was killed in Vietnam. Paddling it is an elegiac exercise, and many trout have come to the net beside it. But it hasn’t been out in three years. Looking at it, a couple of lines of Eliot haunt me: “This is the way the world ends...not with a bang, but a whimper.” What a cheerful thought!

There’s an elderly 18-foot Old Town ABS canoe that’s seen its share of excitement. It went through Sumner Falls upside down, accompanied by Walker Weed and Doc Richardson, just two little heads bobbing down the rapid. It got completely wrapped around a rock near Gaysville on a long-ago Father’s Day. Mother, Martha, and I survived just fine – Mother even dove down for the fishing rods – and the canoe popped right back into shape. It’s the heavy truck of the fleet, freighted these days with mostly nostalgia.

There’s a virtually indestructible old 15-foot Grumman lightweight aluminum canoe, much patched with rivets and bits of copper long before I got it. I think I gave $40 for it about forty years ago. It’s a beaver dam fishing boat: portable, stable, and scratchproof. But it needs a few bolts replaced, a continuing reproach.

The guide boat transports me in memory back to the Adirondacks, where its design originated. I’ve named it after the old Keene Valley guide, carpenter, and scofflaw who was the first in the village to take seriously a bearded refugee looking for work there in the middle 50s. I’ll be fishing this week with an old friend from there who was only ten when I arrived. In the course of the week we’ll probably talk about the icy bath we once took together in the Hayes River at about 67º50’N. When we were in the water, floating irresistibly toward the next rapid, he was, as I recall, less sanguine than I of survival. So we may not rehearse that experience at great length.

A canoe in the water moves under you as if alive. It can carry all your food and gear for a month and more. If you have to, as is often the case, you can carry the canoe and the gear, in several trips, to the next water. I wish I had a sort of odometer to record all the miles I’ve traveled in one since the first voyage in 1947. Thousands, anyway. In the North, where the afternoon winds, whipped up by the heat of the sun, often make paddling impossible, we wait for dusk. Some of the finest miles we’ve paddled have been in the twilight of the Arctic midnight, with just the sound of the ripple of the bow wave, the drip of the paddles, and perhaps a distant loon or wolf.

I’ve got to get out to the barn and let the boats out for exercise – after I mow the lawn and call the electrician about the bathroom fan. Damn! It never ends; but then, one day not too far off, it will end. Meanwhile, Old Rat’s words whisper in my ear: "Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats."

Photo by Willem lange