Our theme for the month of July is “stunt journalism.” Writers were asked to try something new, take on a challenge, or perform some other interesting feat strictly for the purpose of writing about it.
Less than a year ago, a beautifully crafted cedar-strip canoe was bestowed upon Taryn and I as a wedding present. Nicknamed the Dawn Treader, it is already our most prized possession. A gift from my father-in-law (whom I’m sure will be blushing as he reads this paragraph), the Dawn Treader was made with the highest degree of precision and quality, right down to the crosshatched cane seats. Larry made the canoe entirely from scratch, including, I believe, felling the dead trees to make the strips. It is, I attest, the perfectionist’s canoe.
The Dawn Treader was modeled after the Chestnut Prospector, self-billed as the “Workhorse of the North.” Not only is it the fastest canoe design on the market, the Prospector was literally designed for its namesake ore-seekers—“good maneuverability through whitewater and wilderness, with capacity to carry substantial loads.” Google it and you’ll find regal, flannel-clad Canadians plying primordial rivers with all the grace and poise of trained Algonquian hunters. (Seriously though. Check out that link!) Light enough to portage over granite ridgelines, swift enough to navigate uncharted rapids, and sturdy enough to support a load of freshly mined Keweenaw copper. As my father-in-law is apt to remind me, “It was made to be used.”
Still, we couldn’t help but wince the first few times we scraped bottom in those early months. Reeds Lake proved harmless enough, but last spring Taryn and I canoed the Seven Pillars of Indiana, where the Dawn Treader saw her first bruises. It was like denting a brand-new car, but we quickly realized that keeping the Dawn Treader in pristine condition was a ludicrous and wasteful idea.
Over the last few months, we’ve taken her out frequently, becoming familiar with the strokes and maneuvers necessary to navigate Michigan’s winding waterways. And with each successive trip, I became more and more in tune with my vessel. I usually sit in the back, where the majority of the steering takes place. By the end of a Manistee River camping expedition, it was like man and machine had fused; the Dawn Treader was an extension of myself.
That’s why, when the opportunity to paddle the infamous Pine River came up, I decided I was confident enough in my abilities to navigate its legendary hairpins, logjams, boulders, and snags. I knew it was a formidable river—the fastest in the Lower Peninsula, in fact. Class II rapids lurk around nearly every turn, often followed by logjams of crazily stacked white pine, eroded over time and dragged into haphazard mass graves.
It sounded like a blast.
If you’ve ever watched any Fast & Furious movies, you’ll notice Vin Diesel never drives a station wagon through the twisting alleyways of Los Angeles. No, it’s always some souped-up Bugatti, Ferrari, or Maserati, curiously built two years into the future, equipped with high-tech SupraTraxx tires and nitrous oxide bursts. Vin wants to look fly on those high-speed heists!
I guess it was that mentality that made me think taking the Dawn Treader down the Pine was a good idea. I’m a skilled canoeist, I know how to rudder, I’ve got a few tricks up my paddle… and damn, won’t we be a sight for all the schmucks who rely on rentals! When I asked Larry what he thought, he shrugged. “It was made to be used.”
It’s worth noting that Taryn was not with me when all of this went down.
The trip started out as expected. The river was narrow, and the current whipped from bank to bank without warning. As a group of six, we occupied two kayaks, a plastic Old Town canoe, and of course, the Dawn Treader. We usually sent the kayakers through first to call out hidden snags and unseen currents, while the canoes took turns slipping through the rapids behind them. Before we even got on the river, I resolved to sit in the back of the Dawn Treader for the duration of our trip. Zach, my childhood best friend and copilot, took the bow.
It only took minutes to realize this trip was not conducive to casual chit-chat, beer-swigging, or leaning back against cargo, as we were prone to do on most previous trips. No, the Pine required constant vigilance and dexterity; every second taken to observe bald eagles or apply sunscreen came with a price: frantic paddling and overcorrection.
A mere six miles in, the inevitable happened. Another hairpin turn spat Zach and I into a collision course with a gaunt-looking, spiked mace of a stump, making a mockery of my so-called ‘elite’ steering skills. With a wood-cracking smack the Dawn Treader’s bow blasted the stump square on, lodging very firmly into the jaws of its river teeth. Zach was nearly launched out of his seat, scrambling to keep hold of loose items.
Meanwhile, water surged into the stern, flooding my shoes with torrents of angry whitewater. Instinctively, I leapt overboard. The cardinal rule of canoeing: spare the vessel, spare the load.
But it was too late. Water had breached the gunwales, and the river was beginning to fill her up by the gallons. By now, Zach had jumped ship, trying to find footing above the churning rapids. We seized the handles and pulled frantically against the current, but it was disgracefully futile. As we watched in horror, the current slowly began to drag the stern down, down, down, and in an alarming twist of the knife, to the left. And with that final, agonizing left turn, we heard an ungodly, earsplitting splinter.
Caught in the maw of a monster, the Dawn Treader gave out. One of those ugly, torrent-scored river teeth punctured a softball-sized hole through the left side of the bow, slid inside another six inches, and suddenly all was still.
Zach and I didn’t speak for a few minutes. He in stunned condolence, I in contrite devastation. We made several trips from the canoe to shore, flinging coolers, dry bags, and soggy backpacks into the grass with abandon. The need to mourn seemed urgent, and keeping it at bay was frustrating.
Finally, with the cargo in disarray along the shore, I had time to catch my breath and survey the damage. Seeing the Dawn Treader sunken so far underwater like that twisted my stomach into knots. I slowly waded towards her and placed my trembling hands on the gunwales. I allowed my eyes to wander up to the gaping hole, where the root had busted through. Yes sir, this was a trip-ender, alright.
There were two days and forty-eight more miles of river to be paddled, and the rest of the group was an unknown distance ahead of us, out of cell range. I didn’t have answers to those problems, but first things first. We had to dislodge the canoe.
I waded through the torrent to the bow and was able to find surprisingly firm footing on the stump’s behemoth submerged trunk. The way the puncture faced, the ideal way to dislodge would be straight up, and so I crouched down—almost completely underwater—put the Dawn Treader on my shoulders, and prepared for the world’s greatest squat lift. Zach grabbed beneath the stern, preparing for the world’s greatest deadlift.
And we lifted. Damn it, we tried so hard… I’ve never wanted to move something so desperately. But we may as well have been squatting the whole gym; we were lifting against friction, against gravity, and most heavily, against the current. After several minutes of additional surveying and test lifts, we realized a sickening truth. The only way the Dawn Treader was going to budge an inch was with the current. More wood-splintering devastation.
It was a trap straight out of the Saw franchise; some unseen killer was punishing me right now for having the foolhardiness to bring my precious baby into this war zone. Like the captives who cut their own arms off to escape, it was decision time: Leave it, abort the trip, and lose the whole thing, or wrench it sideways, tune out the bone-crunching splinters, and salvage what’s left.
I tell you, letting my Dawn Treader drift sidelong into the current, listening to that terrible, terrible grating and splitting sound, was more painful than any physical wound I’ve ever incurred. There was a wife and a father-in-law to answer to back home; if ripping my arm off had been an option, it’d have been an alterative worthy of consideration.
But we got it out! Once it popped free, we dragged it to shore, dumped out the water, and righted it. Ever the optimist, Zach broke the long silence. “You think if we redistribute the weight to the back, it might still ride? Get us to the next bridge, at least?”
And God bless the Dawn Treader, she did just that. By reloading the cargo toward the back (and sitting at an awkward lean the rest of the trip), not only did the canoe get us to our group and the next bridge, we continued on for two whole days. Zach and I navigated rapids, logjams, hairpins, and eddies with confidence, all while keeping our nose above water. The Chestnut Prospector had shown its true grit; Bill Mason would’ve been proud.
But the spirit of the trip was tarnished. The thrill of a challenge and sense of adventure were replaced with fear and regret every time a new rapid loomed in the distance. Because of the way the canoe rode, it was impossible to forget what had happened, even for an instant. Other paddlers didn’t help either. Every person we passed seemed to think they were the first to notice the crater in the side of our boat and made sure to holler out their observations. And for the next 48 hours, I heard Larry’s voice echoing in my head: “It was made to be used…made to be used…”
By the last day of the trip, I had at least come to grips with it. The hole wasn’t that bad. It could be fixed. It was a battle scar, something to remember the trip by.
But the stress came back in full force when I drove back to Larry’s house to return the trailer. My brother-in-law kept insisting it’d be fine. “He might laugh, give you a hard time,” Eliot assured me. “Mad? No, definitely not.” Still, a reckless son-in-law can never be too sure.
But Eliot knew Larry all too well. He did indeed laugh. He gave me a hard time, inquired about the incident, and when he saw the chagrin on my face, assured me how easily it could be fixed. “Made to be used,” he reminded.
In two days, she was up and running.
Taryn and I drove over to check out the repair. Even for Larry, a master carpenter in his own right, this was fine work and he knew it. “Now before I give it back to you two, I have one condition.” There was a gleam in his eye that I didn’t like the look of. This was it, this was the other shoe about to drop. I knew that whole compassionate father-in-law shtick was a load of crap!
“Take her down the Pine again. Within a year. You need to conquer that river. If you don’t, I’ll find the hole again and stave it in with a paddle.”
And we intend to. After all, it was made to be used.