An Awakening in Canoes-Part III

That night, I settled into the fluffy bed with the University of Michigan LSA Magazine, the Spring 2009 edition which had gathered dust in my office. I rely on the time afforded by a journey in order to read the periodicals I collect with good intentions. I don’t know why I don’t read them during the normal ebb and flow of my days at home. I become singularly focused on work and children and the sound of the air outside my office window and the way the house looks at the end of each day.

On the plane, an article by William Least-Heat Moon in the WSJ Magazine spoke of the power of travel, the coast of a canoe. Canoes were in my mind as I have learned to be aware of the signs and stories all around me. And then, in the magazine of my alma mater, a professor in a canoe on dry land, and the title: Everywhere, Canoes.

Vince Diaz. Canoe Cultures class. “Through canoes,” Vince Diaz told his students, “you will learn about yourself. Canoes are a platform for addressing issues.”

Raised in Guam, he became a strident “born-again native” and subsequently ardent purveyor of the Islander tradition, which was punctuated by canoes. The way a vast archipelago was settled by its own people – not European interlopers – was by virtue of the staying power of a canoe. And now, at the University of

Michigan, he teaches students to build canoes as a way of teaching about cultural tradition. Canoes are “vessels that carry ideas as well as people, containers of culture as well as objects.”

What was all this talk about canoes? Why now? I had traveled to Canada for the mountains I would hike two days later and the ocean waters I would kayak after I slept that night – I had no intention nor desire to climb into a canoe. But clearly, the message was finding me. There was something I needed to know.

When I was a child, I spent one month every summer at a sleepover camp in northern Wisconsin. Camp Birch Trail, on Lake

Pokegama, was nestled beneath tall old trees. The waterskiing point was reached by a ten-minute traverse along a path cut through old growth and then, the little tinny dock jutted out ten feet or so into the still lake. Counselors encouraged the littlest girls to pee outside the cabin door if they had to go late at night instead of walking through dark woods to the wash house for fear of bears.

Once each session, every group of girls had the good fortune to take a three-day trip down a quiet Wisconsin river. We paddled canoes along gulping waters, rarely reaching rapids, almost bored by the meander. I certainly was. At night, we beached our canoes and put up tents, lit a crackling fire over which to cook spaghetti and hot dogs and corn and in the morning, pancakes on the dying embers before we pushed off once again.

As much as I love to travel now, I would be ok if I never climbed into a canoe again. I remember those journeys as slow and long, untold miles ahead around bends of a river with such sameness I wasn’t sure we had moved. It was a burden I endured as a part of camp; all my friends and I were interested in after the miles we traveled was whether some of the boys from a nearby camp were journeying along the same river. 

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