The Art of Canoeing

When I married the first time, my parents gave me a bed as my wedding gift. A fancy, romantic, four-poster bed. It was what I asked for. By the time I quit that marriage, my husband hadn’t had sex with me in a month of Sundays. When I married this time, I asked for a canoe.

Canoeing, like love, is not for the faint of heart. Unlike love, however, canoeing comes with a manual. While still at the canoe store, before our new canoe had touched the water, my husband and I bought a book: “How to Canoe.” 

The small yellow book was encased in plastic, I guess in case the lessons didn’t take and the book ended up in the water. But I thought we should buy a book. I’d never canoed except at summer camp. And this wasn’t summer camp—it was grown-up stuff.

I come by my reliance on instruction naturally. My mother, while a young college student at an all-girls school, took a course entitled “The Theory of Canoeing.” My dad, who was then my mom’s boyfriend, teased her about it because the canoe stayed chained to the dock the entire time. But when he and my mom got married and moved out west, they began to ice skate, a wonderful new activity if you’re from the South. So he bought a manual: “Learning to Skate.” 

Like so much in life, I never finished reading my instruction book before we found ourselves on the water. We had chosen to put into the Wolf River Harbor behind our house. We lived on an island and, on the island’s front side, the turbulent Mississippi River flowed. Better to begin with the more sedate harbor, so inviting with its half-sunken barge relics and open pathway to the grain elevator. “Flat water,” the little yellow book called it, because the water had no current. 

But, like love, the seemingly quiet waters held their own dangers. 

We were mid-harbor. I was practicing the proper method of paddling: cup the handle in your palm, turn smoothly from the waist. My husband wasn’t really interested in the proper way of paddling. He was only interested in where we might be going. As we glided, I could see my house winking at us from the island. We were doing this thing.

I was concentrating, my head bent and my eyes focused on the water, when my husband said, “Don’t look behind you.”

Of course, I looked.

A hulking mammoth of a grain barge bore down on us. The barge hogged the entire channel of the narrow harbor. We were in its path.

We herky-jerked the canoe over to the bank, but the barge still rocked us like rubber ducks in the bathtub. Tangled masses of vines covered the bank we huddled against. Towering cottonwoods blocked the view to our house. Suddenly, a bird whipped up from the water, crying a warning into the sky. I was in an unknown, foreign place…right in my back yard.

Such is life: no amount of instruction can remove all risks. If we attempt to do so, we risk constricting our lives—and loves—until our lifeblood is cut off.

A while later, when we sold our lake house, the purchasers requested we throw in the canoe. I acquiesced, and grieved the canoe.

Now I have a kayak. 

I did NOT buy a book entitled, “How to kayak.” 

I watched a video. 

The Wolf River Harbor in Memphis

canoeing on Wolf River Harbor, How to Canoe, Memphis, Wolf River Harbor

Comments (4)

  • Wonderful essay, Ellen. I was with you in that canoe with the grain barge headed at you. We’ve owned two canoes and once took a long paddle down the Rideau Canal system from Ottawa to Kingston on Lake Ontario. An epic trip that somehow our marriage survived – without a manual.

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      Thank you. Both my mother and husband were surprised to read about themselves. 🙂 We were at Lake Huron this spring. I cannot imagine being on a canoe on the Great Lakes! I am very impressed.

  • I’ve only canoed twice – on the Big Black River in south Mississippi and on Bear Creek in Tishomingo County. Both of these experiences were great fun and each had rapids to navigate. Both times, even though my rowing partner told me, and I had read in my little booklet, to keep your feet balanced as you rise – well, the more I focused on keeping the canoe balanced and watching how I stood up, let’s just say I am excellent in capsizing..

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      Rapids! In a canoe. A kayak, maybe. But I could never make it over rapids in a canoe without capsizing. (We bought a trailer to get our kayak to the beach right as the water advisory was issued early summer-I’m ready to get back on the water)

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