Monday, October 22, 2007

18. Real American Heroes

(26 June, continued)

Back at Echo Lake we once again embarked on a paddling adventure. Our goal was to find where Pickett Creek entered the lake, and to see if it was traversable. My dad had passed it on his jog, where it flowed out of a bog that was a designated grouse and woodcock management area.

The wind blew from the west, at our backs, as we paddled east from the dock, I at the bow. We knew the trip back would be brutal. Echo Lake was a lot bigger than either of us had thought. It wasn't too wide, but looked to be at least three miles long, east to west.

After paddling a short while, and after a few rests where my dad cast in his line, we found a little bay, hatched on the edges with the vertical green lines of reed beds. The bay was surrounded by beautiful woods, birch to the east, and pines to the west. A huge white pine stood alone on a small peninsula at the mouth of the bay, guarding its treasures. Sheltered here from the wind, the flies found us, and I soon incited our return to choppy water.

We paddled leisurely south, toward the inside of the bay, into which the creek seemed to be flowing. I scouted ahead for rocks just below the water's surface. Soon we could see Pickett Creek, gurgling over rapids and a little waterfall into Echo Lake. It was picturesque.

The west side of the bay was bordered by rows of straight, slender birch. We watched as a huge heron flew up and behind the outermost row of birch, and then flew slowly along the shoreline, just behind the treetops, with the sun shining at us through the yellow-green leaves.


We could not go in any further due to rocks. I asked my dad if he was going to fish, and he said that we had better head back, because it was going to take a long time. We made our way back to the main body of Echo Lake, the water choppy like the sea, as a steady gale ripped across its entire east-west length. We dug in and paddled our boat straight into the stream of wind and water. My left shoulder was too sore for this. I asked my dad if I could switch sides, and he said I could paddle on any side I wanted. So I switched, and comfortably paddled on the starboard side the whole way back.

As we battled the elements in our vessel of ancient design and modern materials, I saw now how quickly we had gotten down here, pushed by the wind as we had been. Now we fought against it, the wind and the evening sun in our faces. The boat rocked with the waves. Progress was steady and slow, the wind unrelenting. I gritted my teeth, set my resolve, and locked my gaze at a point of land half a mile ahead, which blocked our destination from view. Again, anger helped pump adrenaline through my straining muscles. I was Rambo. My eyes were set with grim determination beneath my furrowed brow, my jaw in a scowl.

"This is for you guys," I repeated in my mind. This was 'Nam. It was up to us to set the POWs free. My suffering at the helm of this canoe was nothing compared to the tortures inflicted on my comrades. "This is for you guys."

We slowly approached a couple leisurely fishing in a drifting motorboat. As we struggled past, their gazes followed us, and they surely thought we were nuts.

I then used a cycling technique with my paddling, to make sure I didn't burn out before we achieved victory. I noticed that my natural paddling technique was similar to my peddling technique, most likely due to my elongated frame: I ride a big gear. I paddle with long, deep strokes. This is a recipe for power, but also for early burnout. So I increased my paddling cadence, instead using shorter, more shallow strokes, but more of them, faster. It seemed to do the trick. "This is for you guys." I paddled in a frenzy.

It took probably three times longer for us to return than it had going out. We beached, strapped the canoe onto the car, and had a Red Dog down by the boat launch, before returning to camp. For dinner, we ate refried beans, boiled potatoes, and yams.

At sunset, my dad stood next to the car with its canoe helmet, silhouetted against the chrome-colored lake. That sixteen-foot Alumacraft canoe had been in the Stoltz family since 1961, but it was the second. The preceeding canoe had been left in Brownie Lake overnight by my young aunt Maxine, and it had been stolen. She told their folks that she had only left it for a few minutes. Her older brother, my dad, kept her secret.

My mind reeled to imagine all the bodies of water our canoe had traversed over the years. The dull scratches of countless logs, rocks, and beaches covered its hull, as did all the old registration stickers. With a beer in my hand, I stood in awe and reverence. This canoe had never let us down.

The aluminum canoe is such a potent symbol of Europeans in America. The shape is purely Native American in design, adopted by the French-Canadian voyageurs, and crafted, at that time, out of the traditional materials: birchbark, roots, and gum. Aluminum canoes are made from metal mined from the earth by massive, destructive industry. The newer fiberglass ones are created with sophisticated chemistry and engineering, melting sand into glass, and weaving it into powerful strands. But the design remains as it has for thousands of years. Elegant and simple. A silhouette of the past.

Later, my dad and I walked out to the road where the fireflies wandered the night air. "You know what I'm thankful for," he said with earnest, "is that we don't have Tyrannosaurus rex running around. I'm scared enough of bears. But to have those bastards running around, eating people." He shook his head bitterly. "They don't care. They don't care about what you're doing."

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