06/12/2008 04:26 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

It Is Not Easy to Paddle Your Own Canoe

"Be strong, O paddle! Be brave canoe!

--E. Pauline Johnson


It is not easy to paddle your own canoe.

Shoulders and biceps burn and breath comes harder and faster than one would like when the wind forces an unexpected and unwanted change in course. The core body is challenged and strained, and broken ligaments from the car crash bulge over the base of the skull. Sometimes it hurts.

The soft dawns of Minnesota summer mornings are enough, though, to encourage one to pull on the tattered sweatshirt that belonged to the now-grown daughter and explore the perimeter of the ancient trout lake. There are tasks to be accomplished on the lake. There are observations to be made and meditations to consider.

Has the loon hatched her twin eggs? Is the great blue heron fishing on the east bank? What about the mallards in the cattails? Will the hundred year old snapping turtle devour the ducklings again this year? The pull is seductive. Seeing is believing.

I made a terrible mistake today. I wanted to move faster across the glassy surface of my blue-green lake. Impatient, I grabbed a kayak paddle, thinking that its feathered blades would be quick fix and make my morning journey more efficient. I knew immediately that the fancy aluminum shaft felt strange. It was smooth and enticing and seemed to promise that we would work well together on the journey of discovery. Its lightness and flexibility was a comfort to hands that tire more easily now. But part of me missed the roughness of the wooden canoe paddle, worn smooth by many hands on countless summer mornings. Varnish worn away and gray wood exposed, my canoe paddle and I were always a good team on our morning meditations.

The lure of comfort won out on this June morning. I grabbed the shiny new kayak paddle with its two blades and literally sailed across the surface. My canoe and I flew past the loon and she did not have time to look up and greet us with her soft tremolo. Her mate was missing and I noted this fact and worried. I never saw the ducklings and the great blue was startled at our stealthy approach and flew away--his angry cry hanging in the morning air--for the efficient dual blades were as silent as the clouds that drifted across the sky above us. Something was wrong, but too enticed by the clouds drifting by and the struggles with painful memories, I capitulated and gave myself completely to the ease and promise of the dual blades, and gripped the aluminum gently as my arms moved--left, right, left, right, left.

A breeze rippled the surface and suddenly we were trapped on the east bank, near the boat landing where the wind is always tricky. My canoe became a seventeen foot horizontal sail, but no techniques of tacking with the errant breeze could stop us from spinning lazily--going nowhere. This would never happen with my paddle. My paddle and I existed alone with only one blade, but we were efficient and our course was always true.

The only option was to use the shiny aluminum with its dual blades and bank the canoe, give up, and pole along the shore, pushing through the broken trees and reeds.

I dug in with arms made strong by the weathered paddle and realized something I had missed all along. My old paddle was tucked in the bottom of the canoe, towards the bow, but within easy reach under the thwart. The grip felt good and we got to work. It was hard work in the stiff breeze, but we were on course once again. My canoe paddle and I had only two options--pushing and pulling, pushing and pulling--but I was padding my own canoe and I had found my compass once again.

With a heart beating hard and in ancient rhythm as eddies swirled around the wooden blade, I heard something remarkable. I heard my paddle sing. My core body tightened and helped strong arms stay vertical as we moved, alone and true.

Now, I hear clearly the song my paddle sings.

"And up on the hills against the sky
A fir tree rocking its lullaby
Its emerald wings
Swelling the song that my paddle sings."

Pauline Johnson was a Mohawk Indian, born on the Six Nations Indian reserve near Brantford, Ontario in 1862. She became one of the best known Canadian authors of her time. She died in 1913.

Cross-posted on OEN