I decided not to buy the 5 horsepower outboard motor for my canoe, thanks to Paul. As we sat on the bake house porch Sunday, surveying the early morning harbor, he offered well-reasoned dissent from my notion. Boating perfection, he stated, consists of a canoe, the paddle and nothing involving internal combustion engines. Why mess with perfection?
I reviewed my sworn allegiance to owning no boat that I could not lift onto the roof of my car—a defense against the occasional hankering for bigger and faster watercraft—and I wish to never enslave myself to boat maintenance. We have ample examples in town of people mortgaged to their large wooden boats, in more way than one. A large boat cries out for both constant use and constant upkeep. No thank you. It’s enough just getting the downstairs vacuumed and doing the laundry for a family of five.
Paul, being an expert in resource conservation and retrieval, and a marine engineer, was accustomed to going to sea on vessels whose engine horsepower was measured in the tens of thousands. Talk of the 5 horsepower outboard on the stern of a canoe was a red flag; a slippery slope. He pointed out how much more pleasure he derives in the torque of a well-wrought wooden paddle single-handedly plying the waves, even against the tide.
Paul doesn’t even need to put his canoe on top of the car. He loads it on the two-wheeled garden cart and walks it down Main Street to the landing. No petrochemicals involved. Fuel: a few blueberry muffins will suffice. To Paul’s way of thinking, just paddling from the town dock to the yacht club dock and back, down in the harbor, is a quality journey.
Nonetheless, the allure of going farther, faster had spurred my rationalization of a small motor attached to the stern. On the big lakes, I reasoned, with the canoe full to the gunwales with tent, stove, sleeping bags, large dog, we would extend our reach by moving at 6 or 7 miles per hour rather than 1 or 2.
“But why go to the big lake? You know that marshy area as you head up toward Hatch’s Cove? There’s nothing like drifting in there and just sitting. . . or going over to Ram Island and getting mussels off of the shoals. That’s all you need,” he mused.
He could probably back it up with an amortization of motor purchase price over time given frequency of 3 hour drives to the big lake, cost of oil and gas for car and outboard, etc. Why work so hard to make the money to buy the engine to get there faster and miss all that there was to see along the way? It’s the quality of the journey, after all. I think he knew he could show some restraint; the Thoreauvian arguments held sway.
There’s enough dissuasion in a brief perusal of the boat section of Uncle Henry’s weekly want advertiser. Somehow the ads for motorboats serve to chill the experience of boating: too much money, too much fuss, too many numbers and figures involved in getting to know your boat. And no lineage. They are all too far out on the lateral branches of the boating family tree. Why not stick with the original?
John McPhee’s thorough research into the bark canoe proves my point: with a few simple adaptations the canoe serves all purposes. ‘A canoe with a curving, rocker bottom could turn with quick response in white water. A canoe with a narrow bow and stern and a somewhat V-sided straight bottom could hold its course across a strong lake wind. A canoe with a narrow beam moved faster than any other and was therefore the choice for war.” (Survival of the Bark Canoe) My canoe is narrow in the beam and bow with a bottom responsive in white water and it holds a straight course if I have a good paddler in the bow and my dog, Gus, will sit still when we paddle near ducks. It is a Penobscot, a name redolent of old bark designs. A Penobscot Indian of 1750 would see my canoe and know what it is, what it was designed to do, how to paddle it. And he would see no need to peruse Uncle Henry’s for anything more. This is the ultimate.
Of course McPhee’s is a rather functional treatment of a canoe’s specifications and omits the esthetics of the craft. A canoe is a perfectly proportioned shape, but also a feeling as right as a sonnet. There is an octave of sounds: water lapping at the bow, the suctioning funnel in the water after a strong stroke, pounding of the bow leaping the crest of a rolling wave and landing in the trough; drumming of the paddle on the gunwale as I reach forward to pull the canoe forward; marsh grass combing the bottom on the way to Hatch’s Cove and the sound of nothing but the canoeist’s own breathing when the lake or pond is glassy still.
It’s fair to say that Paul had done a worthy job consulting with me on my resource retrieval—I only realized later how economical his approach had been. He saw the impending disaster and resource deficit and moved quickly to staunch the flow. I’d love to have him as my bow man the next time we float with the tide from the town dock down to the yacht club and back, or venture to Ram Island for mussels, a round trip voyage that will pass many a wooden boat sapping the resources of people who began with a canoe atop their car. Then things went sadly awry.
First published in The Christian Science Monitor.