Canoe sculpture

Monochrome for Austin, Nancy Rubins

Monochrome for Austin, Nancy Rubins

While we were in Austin last week we saw a dramatic 50-foot diameter structure composed of roughly 75 canoes and a few rowboats jutting out at various angles. The boats are suspended from a steel framework by cables, with a design claimed to withstand Austin’s winds.

Some of the boats are damaged boats donated by canoe rental companies, still showing their logos. I tried to imagine the rapids that could lead to such a massive, beautiful disaster. The structure represents the far end of a spectrum that has my wood and canvas canoe quietly plying a Wellfleet pond at the other end.

A few students, assuming that the sculpture was funded through tuition, started a change.org petition asking the University to return their tuition money.

Unveiled on January 17, the canoe nest is the newest piece in the Landmarks collection, the University’s public art program. It sits in front of the Hackerman Building at the corner of Speedway and 24th Street. Eventually it will be part of a larger outdoor art project stretching a half dozen blocks along Speedway, with a pedestrian walkway.

New 50-foot-tall sculpture makes waves on campus | The Daily Texan.

Bow Trip

The Bow Trip, near Jackman, Maine, has to be near the top of any list of great canoe adventures. It’s usually completed in only three days, or just one without camping gear, but it packs in lakes dotted with islands, hidden bays, squiggly peninsulas, and watchful mountains, balsam fir forest with beech and birch tree stands, bogs, wildflower gardens, and giant boulders. There are loons, cormorants, moose, and bears. At this time, the white trillium is in bloom, along with many other wildflowers.Image

We just finished the circuit, starting from the outlet of the Moose River on Wood Pond, crossing Attean Pond, portaging to Holeb Pond, then down Holeb Stream to the Moose again, and back to Attean. A nice feature is that one can put in at various places and return to the starting point, in our case, a rustic cabin on Wood Pond.

The Bow Trip calls for flatwater river and lake paddling, rips and falls, lining, carries, eddy turns, and even sliding canoes down an incline or pushing under fallen trees. We had a scare when we rounded a turn under the one bridge, an old railroad trestle, to discover a downed power line. Parts of it were in the water, and it rose up to ensnare canoes.

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There are always surprises on a trip like this. We timed ours to be at the cusp of the transition from black fly to mosquito season, managing to have plenty of both. But they had to wait their turn behind the gnats and midges.Image

In our case, the big surprise was the high water. It made pull-outs and camping challenging. The portage trails looked more like streams than pathways. Our Tripper canoe has somehow gained weight over the years so that flipping it overhead while standing in muck and swatting flies seemed less fun than it once did. Because of the high water, we managed to run Camel Rips without noticing it and Attean Falls, which usually requires a carry.Image

We heard and saw birds everywhere. I unwound a little, floating down the lovely river, rediscovering muscles and bones I’d forgotten about. The clouds were a fantastic and ever-changing background to the lush Maine forest. The rips and falls were exhilarating. Image

The Bow Trip is a special treat, a highlight of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. We were alone most of the way, seeing a friendly group from the Maine School of Science and Mathematics at a couple of points, but mostly enjoying alone a precious resource that some people know well, but most will never experience.

See additional photos from our Bow Trip.

Voyages with the Rob Roy

rob_royI had shoulder surgery on August 18, so my days of paddling through rapids or hoisting a canoe on my shoulders need to be postponed. As a substitute, I’ve been reading A thousand miles in the Rob Roy canoe on rivers and lakes of Europe (1866), by John Macgregor (1825-1892).

singers_wagonMacGregor himself led a life that sounds like an overdone adventure yarn. At the age of three months, he was rescued from a burning ship whil een route to India with his parents. At the age of 12, he helped launch a rescue boat for a ship in distress off Belfast, then slipped aboard secretly a the last moment to help out. He grew up sailing, boat-building, riding, reading, and experimenting with home-made steam engines, batteries, and chemicals that led to several major explosions. He attended seven schools before graduating from Trinity College, Dublin in mathematics. He traveled throughout the world, fighting Greek pirates and crocodiles, climbing Mont Blanc, Etna, and Vesuvius. He won awards for sharpshooting, drew for Punch and illustrated books, and wrote his own books on marine propulsion, patent law, travel, and transcriptions of Syrian and Egyptian melodies he had heard in his travels.

MacGregor built a hybrid canoe / kayak with a sail and a double-bladed, kayak paddle which he named the “Rob Roy”. He then paddled through the rivers, lakes and canals of Germany, France and Switzerland, portaging between waterways on a cart or on trains. His account of the journey became a best seller and was the beginning of the recreational canoeing movement. His trip inspired many, including Robert Louis Stevenson, who made his own voyage in a Rob Roy, and then wrote about it in his first published book, An inland voyage.

morningMacGregor’s account portrays a Europe with only distant resonance to today. Instead of shopping centers and freeways, there were people cutting hay with hand tools. Instead of the Web, there were newspapers, 3241 in Germany alone.

A thousand miles displays a buoyant optimism and refreshing sense of discovery. MacGregor talks of “a strange feeling of freedom and novelty which lasted to the end of the tour,” (p. 15), and throughout, of a reverence for the canoe, which I share:

Something like it is felt when you first march off with a knapsack ready to walk anywhere, or when you start alone in a sailing-boat for a long cruise.

But then in walking you are bounded by every sea and river, and in a common sailing-boat you are bounded by every shallow and shore; whereas, I was in a canoe, which could be paddled or sailed, hauled, or carried over land or water to Rome, if I liked, or to Hong-Kong. (p. 15)

digueI also like his descriptions of wildlife, for example of herons “wading about with that look of injured innocence they put on when you dare to disturb them.” (p. 35) Later, he refers to a gathering including the

long-necked, long-winged, long-legged heron, that seems to have forgotten to get a body, flocks by scores with ducks of the various wild breeds, while pretty painted butterflies and fierce- looking dragon-flies float, as it were, on the summer sunbeams, and simmer in the air. (p. 71)

At the village of Geisingen it was discovered that the boiler of my engine needed some fuel, or, in plain terms, I must breakfast. (p. 59)

meuseMacGregor’s challenges along the way become not discouragements, but the very stuff of the journey. He  reminds me that a broken shoulder is just a toss on the billows, one that can be an opportunity to learn:

It is, as in the voyage of life, that our cares and hardships are our very Mentors of living. Our minds would only vegetate if all life were like a straight canal, and we in a boat being towed along it. The afflictions that agitate the soul are as its shallows, rocks, and whirlpools, and the bark that has not been tossed on billows knows not half the sweetness of the harbour of rest. (p. 37)

GSLIS canoe trip

Photos from a GSLIS canoe trip on the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River (Wabash River tributary). There was another GSLIS trip on the same river the previous June.

The Middle Fork is the only river in Illinois designated as a National Wild and Scenic River by US National Park Service. It flows through Kickapoo State Park near Danville.

Quetico, August 1963

Here are some photos from my trip to Quetico Provincial Park in August 1963. Notice the water damage on the 35mm slides, which is explained by the story that follows the photos.


In August of 1963, our Explorer Post 52 traveled to Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park just west of Lake Superior on the Canada-U.S. border for a wilderness canoe trip. In order to get to Quetico, we journeyed for three days from Fort Worth in what was even then an old, yellow school bus. We stayed in Air Force bases, sleeping on the gym floors and experiencing steam baths for the first time.

This was a year of changes, including the arrival of the Beatles in the US and the assassination of President Kennedy. But the trip was the major event in my life that year.

It was a wonderful trip in many ways. We stayed up most of one night watching a rare display of the Aurora Borealis, which filled the sky for hours. The sun was shining, the fishing was good, and there was great singing, story-telling, and endless argument about the meaning of life around the campfires. It was good exercise, too, especially with the canvas packs of those days. On portages, one of us would carry the canoe, one a food pack, which weighed 110 pounds in the beginning, and one all our gear–cotton sleeping bags, canvas tent, and clothes.

The Storm

We had been out for at least a week when the storm came up. It was on the Basswood River, but in a wide section, like a long lake. When the storm arrived, we decided not to risk a crossing and pulled into a cave a the base of a huge granite cliff with pictographs. “Picture rock” on Crooked Lake was shown in the September 1963 National Geographic, and I recall seeing the Basswood cliff when I returned from the trip.

I held my canoe onto the rock under this 100-foot cliff, as did Fred Moyer, our guide. The other two canoes held on to us, locked together to avoid capsizing.

After a few minutes, I released my grip on the rock for just a moment to tighten my poncho. As I did, lightning struck a solitary tree at the top of the cliff. The current traveled down the cliff to our cave. Everything went suddenly white, for some indefinite period. If you told me today that it was ten seconds or just one, I wouldn’t be able to dispute it, because time didn’t exist for me then. I could feel the charge in the air, and am still sensitive to changing electrical conditions. When I’ve felt that while canoeing, I get very nervous.

The current reached Fred’s hand, which was still touching the rock. His canoe, which was the only wood and canvas one, was shattered. Bob Cocanower and Gary Rall were the two scouts in Fred’s canoe and they both suffered physical injury from the lightning: Bob’s arms were paralyzed and Gary’s legs. Fred was killed instantly.

After Fred died, Chuck Borgeson and Duane, the guide from a companion group, took his body to the ranger station (see Bobby’s account, too). I must have gone into shock, because I went to sleep later that morning and slept until the next day. We, of course, cut the trip a short from what was planned originally, but not by much, because there wasn’t an easy way just to exit from such a remote location.

Aftermath

The accident was reported in Texas newspapers as “lightning strikes Scout group, at least one killed.” Naturally, our parents were distraught, but unable to learn much about what had happened for several days. This was well before cell phones and we had no portable radio.

It’s sobering to realize that I was the only one other than Fred holding on to the rock just before the lightning struck. If I hadn’t let go to pull my poncho, all 12 of us might have died, because it would have completed an electrical circuit connecting all our aluminum canoes.

We managed to complete the trip without further mishap, but aspects of it are still vivid for me today. After the wilderness experience, we went to Winnipeg and found a restaurant that offered all-you-can-eat lunches for 49 cents. After two weeks of vigorous exercise and eating our own cooking of dehydrated potatoes, we were hungry beyond any measure a restaurant should have to endure. It wouldn’t surprise me to hear that we put them out of business.

References

Coalson, Bob. The Fred Moyer incident. Post 52 history: Charles L. Sommers Canoe Base.

Olson, Sigurd F. (1963, September). Relics from the rapids. National Geographic, 124(3), 412-435.