I grew up in an urban world of concrete and asphalt. Nature was a few weeds sprouting from sidewalk cracks in August. Summer camp was for rich kids. So I spent a lot of time dreaming of living in the wilderness, fueled by images from James Fennimore Cooper — the buckskin-clad deerslayer paddling down rivers, hunting, fishing, and fighting bad guys. Most kids saw their first car as a ticket out of the neighborhood. I dreamed of owning a canoe.
It was a long time coming. I spent my first decade as an adult fighting a war on poverty and against a war in Vietnam. Then, burned out after the 1972 defeat of George McGovern, I joined other despairing lefties to find hope in rural life. I cashed in everything and moved my family to a run-down blueberry farm in Maine.
One spring day, a neighbor told me he was selling his canoe. The canoes of my childhood fantasies were birch bark; this was 16 feet of banged up fiberglass. But it was $60, with three paddles and a patch kit thrown in. The day after I bought it, with my (now ex-) wife in the bow, I confidently pushed out into the seemingly friendly rippling current of a local river. We paddled happily down the sun-dappled stream for a mile or so to the first patch of modest-level white water. We hit the first rock dead-on, tumbled into the river and when we scrambled out, the canoe was split in two and out gear floating downstream and probably out to sea.
This was by no means the cause of our divorce, but it certainly couldn’t have helped.
A few weeks later, a Maine friend taught me the J-stroke, the maneuver that allows you to control the canoe from one side. It transformed my life. I quickly bought another canoe, went on to master the cross-stroke, the back paddle, and how to ferry across a strong current. I learned to read the river — the inverted v that tells you where the rocks are, the difference between a patch of foaming water that is benign and one that will suck you under, and the way a slight alternation in the water level can turn a safe passage through the rocks into a disaster.
Heaven became a canoe trip with one of my sons or buddies, camping along the way, paddling silently with the current, flushing ducks and skittish deer, letting the hard edges of political and personal life soften in the music of the wind that gradually fades into an ominous hiss of big rapids downstream.
Just above the whitewater, you go ashore to make your plan. Then comes that moment that you push off into the current — no turning back, no one to call time out if you’ve forgotten something. The canoe speeds up, and you are hurtled into a foaming blur, desperately dodging previously unseen rocks that rise like giant teeth to chew you up, your mind a blank except for one simple phrase — “keep paddling.” And finally you clear the last set of rocks, soaking wet and exuberant.
Eventually, coming to terms with my essentially urban nature, I moved back to a big city. But my romance with the canoe remained. The images of my childhood fantasies evolved into river metaphors in my speech and writing: I insist that I am in the political mainstream, just a little further downriver than most.
Once I ran some rapids with a grizzled New Hampshire man to learn the technique of turning into the calm eddies just behind the big rocks. After he explained the plan for a particularly rough stretch in front of us, he added: “Running whitewater is like life. You can point your canoe downstream, close your eyes and hope that you make it. Or, you can plan ahead — go from safe spot to safe spot — and be in control.”
But once in the river, the current was so strong that we missed the first eddy and spun helplessly and hair-raisingly backward down the rocky channel. Miraculously the canoe missed all the boulders and did not swamp.
“Like life,” shrugged my backwoods guru after the river had unceremoniously deposited us in the calm water below the rapid, “it’s better to be lucky than good.”
The American Prospect. February 19, 2007