The Forest by Stewart Edward White
VII. On Open-Water Canoe Travelling.
"It is there that I am going, with an extra hand to bail her-- Just one single long-shore loafer that I know. He can take his chance of drowning while I sail and sail and sail her, For the Red Gods call me out, and I must go."
The following morning the wind had died, but had been succeeded by a heavy pall of fog. After we had felt our way beyond the mouth of the river we were forced to paddle north-west by north, in blind reliance on our compass. Sounds there were none. Involuntarily we lowered our voices. The inadvertent click of the paddle against the gunwale seemed to desecrate a foreordained stillness.
Occasionally to the right hand or the left we made out faint shadow-pictures of wooded islands that endured but a moment and then deliberately faded into whiteness. They formed on the view exactly as an image develops on a photographic plate. Sometimes a faint lisp-lisp-lisp of tiny waves against a shore nearer than it seemed cautioned us anew not to break the silence. Otherwise we were alone, intruders, suffered in the presence of a brooding nature only as long as we refrained from disturbances.
Then at noon the vapours began to eddy, to open momentarily in revelation of vivid green glimpses, to stream down the rising wind. Pale sunlight dashed fitfully across us like a shower. Somewhere in the invisibility a duck quacked. Deuce awoke, looked about him, and yow-yow-yowed in doggish relief. Animals understand thoroughly these subtleties of nature.
In half an hour the sun was strong, the air clear and sparkling, and a freshening wind was certifying our prognostications of a lively afternoon.
A light canoe will stand almost anything in the way of a sea, although you may find it impossible sometimes to force it in the direction you wish to go. A loaded canoe will weather a great deal more than you might think. However, only experience in balance and in the nature of waves will bring you safely across a stretch of whitecaps.
With the sea dead ahead you must not go too fast; otherwise you will dip water over the bow. You must trim the craft absolutely on an even keel; otherwise the comb of the wave, too light to lift you, will slop in over one gunwale or the other. You must be perpetually watching your chance to gain a foot or so between the heavier seas.
With the sea over one bow you must paddle on the leeward side. When the canoe mounts a wave, you must allow the crest to throw the bow off a trifle, but the moment it starts down the other slope you must twist your paddle sharply to regain the direction of your course. The careening tendency of this twist you must counteract by a corresponding twist of your body in the other direction. Then the hollow will allow you two or three strokes wherewith to assure a little progress. The double twist at the very crest of the wave must be very delicately performed, or you will ship water the whole length of your craft.
With the sea abeam you must simply paddle straight ahead. The adjustment is to be accomplished entirely by the poise of the body. You must prevent the capsize of your canoe when clinging to the angle of a wave by leaning to one side. The crucial moment, of course, is that during which the peak of the wave slips under you. In case of a breaking comber, thrust the flat of your paddle deep in the water to prevent an upset, and lean well to leeward, thus presenting the side and half the bottom of the canoe to the shock of water. Your recovery must be instant, however. If you lean a second too long, over you go. This sounds more difficult than it is. After a time you do it instinctively, as a skater balances.
With the sea over the quarter you have merely to take care that the waves do not slue you around sidewise, and that the canoe does not dip water on one side or the other under the stress of your twists with the paddle. Dead astern is perhaps the most difficult of all, for the reason that you must watch both gunwales at once, and must preserve an absolutely even keel, in spite of the fact that it generally requires your utmost strength to steer. In really heavy weather one man only can do any work. The other must be content to remain passenger, and he must be trained to absolute immobility. No matter how dangerous a careen the canoe may take, no matter how much good cold water may pour in over his legs, he must resist his tendency to shift his weight. The entire issue depends on the delicacy of the steersman's adjustments, so he must be given every chance.
The main difficulty rests in the fact that such canoeing is a good deal like air-ship travel--there is not much opportunity to learn by experience. In a four-hour run across an open bay you will encounter somewhat over a thousand waves, no two of which are exactly alike, and any one of which can fill you up only too easily if it is not correctly met. Your experience is called on to solve instantly and practically a thousand problems. No breathing-space in which to recover is permitted you between them. At the end of the four hours you awaken to the fact that your eyes are strained from intense concentration, and that you taste copper.
Probably nothing, however, can more effectively wake you up to the last fibre of your physical, intellectual, and nervous being. You are filled with an exhilaration. Every muscle, strung tight, answers immediately and accurately to the slightest hint. You quiver all over with restrained energy. Your mind thrusts behind you the problem of the last wave as soon as solved, and leaps with insistent eagerness to the next. You attain that superordinary condition when your faculties react instinctively, like a machine. It is a species of intoxication. After a time you personify each wave; you grapple with it as with a personal adversary; you exult as, beaten and broken, it hisses away to leeward. "Go it, you son of a gun!" you shout. "Ah, you would, would you! think you can, do you?" and in the roar and rush of wind and water you crouch like a boxer on the defence, parrying the blows, but ready at the slightest opening to gain a stroke of the paddle.
In such circumstances you have not the leisure to consider distance. You are too busily engaged in slaughtering waves to consider your rate of progress. The fact that slowly you are pulling up on your objective point does not occur to you until you are within a few hundred yards of it. Then, unless you are careful, you are undone.
Probably the most difficult thing of all to learn is that the waves to be encountered in the last hundred yards of an open sweep are exactly as dangerous as those you dodged so fearfully four miles from shore. You are so nearly in that you unconsciously relax your efforts. Calmly, almost contemptuously, a big roller rips along your gunwale. You are wrecked--fortunately within easy swimming distance. But that doesn't save your duffel. Remember this: be just as careful with the very last wave as you were with the others. Get inside before you draw that deep breath of relief.
Strangely enough, in out-of-door sports, where it would seem that convention would rest practically at the zero point, the bugbear of good form, although mashed and disguised, rises up to confuse the directed practicality. The average man is wedded to his theory. He has seen a thing done in a certain way, and he not only always does it that way himself, but he is positively unhappy at seeing any one else employing a different method. From the swing at golf to the manner of lighting a match in the wind, this truism applies. I remember once hearing a long argument with an Eastern man on the question of the English riding-seat in the Western country.
"Your method is all very well," said the Westerner, "for where it came from. In England they ride to hunt, so they need a light saddle and very short stirrups set well forward. That helps them in jumping. But it is most awkward. Out here you want your stirrups very long and directly under you, so your legs hang loose, and you depend on your balance and the grip of your thighs--not your knees. It is less tiring, and better sense, and infinitely more graceful, for it more nearly approximates the bareback seat. Instead of depending on stirrups, you are part of the horse. You follow his every movement. And as for your rising trot, I'd like to see you accomplish it safely on our mountain trails, where the trot is the only gait practicable, unless you take for ever to get anywhere." To all of which the Easterner found no rebuttal except the, to him, entirely efficient plea that his own method was good form.
Now, of course, it is very pleasant to do things always accurately, according to the rules of the game, and if you are out merely for sport, perhaps it is as well to stick to them. But utility is another matter. Personally, I do not care at all to kill trout unless by the fly; but when we need meat and they do not need flies, I never hesitate to offer them any kind of doodle-bug they may fancy. I have even at a pinch clubbed them to death in a shallow, land-locked pool. Time will come in your open-water canoe experience when you will pull into shelter half full of water, when you will be glad of the fortuity of a chance cross-wave to help you out, when sheer blind luck, or main strength and awkwardness, will be the only reasons you can honestly give for an arrival, and a battered and dishevelled arrival at that. Do not, therefore, repine, or bewail your awkwardness, or indulge in undue self-accusations of "tenderfoot." Method is nothing; the arrival is the important thing. You are travelling, and if you can make time by nearly swamping yourself, or by dragging your craft across a point, or by taking any other base advantage of the game's formality, by all means do so. Deuce used to solve the problem of comfort by drinking the little pool of cold water in which he sometimes was forced to lie. In the woods, when a thing is to be done, do not consider how you have done it, or how you have seen it done, or how you think it ought to be done, but how it can be accomplished. Absolute fluidity of expedient, perfect adaptability, is worth a dozen volumes of theoretical knowledge. "If you can't talk," goes the Western expression, "raise a yell; if you can't yell, make signs; if you can't make signs, wave a bush."
And do not be too ready to take advice as to what you can or cannot accomplish, even from the woods people. Of course the woods Indians or the voyageurs know all about canoes, and you would do well to listen to them. But the mere fact that your interlocutor lives in the forest, while you normally inhabit the towns, does not necessarily give him authority. A community used to horses looks with horror on the instability of all water craft less solid than canal boats. Canoemen stand in awe of the bronco. The fishermen of the Georgian Bay, accustomed to venture out with their open sailboats in weather that forces the big lake schooners to shelter, know absolutely nothing about canoes. Dick and I made an eight-mile run from the Fox island to Killarney in a trifling sea, to be cheered during our stay at the latter place by doleful predictions of an early drowning. And this from a seafaring community. It knew all about boats; it knew nothing about canoes; and yet the unthinking might have been influenced by the advice of these men simply because they had been brought up on the water. The point is obvious. Do not attempt a thing unless you are sure of yourself; but do not relinquish it merely because some one else is not sure of you.
The best way to learn is with a bathing-suit. Keep near shore, and try everything. Don't attempt the real thing until your handling in a heavy sea has become as instinctive as snap-shooting or the steps of dancing. Remain on the hither side of caution when you start out. Act at first as though every wavelet would surely swamp you. Extend the scope of your operations very gradually, until you know just what you can do. Never get careless. Never take any real chances. That's all.