As winter approaches, I find myself going through the annual ritual of rearranging my outdoor "toys." You know, summer gear goes to the back of the garage, winter gear comes out where it's handy. After a dismal ski year in the winter of 2004/2005 here in the Pacific Northwest, this year's early snow has me clamoring for my ski equipment. But first, the camping gear, the hiking stuff, and the water sport equipment must go.
And so it was that, on a chilly weekend in November, I found myself waxing nostalgic about my old canoe.
She isn't pretty. She isn't the object of anyone's admiration. But my sturdy aluminum 16-foot canoe has been my primary water vehicle since I was 20 years old. I bought it from a "dents & dings" palette at my local Montgomery Ward store the summer between my junior and senior years of college. It was a steal, and the dent was barely noticeable once I whacked it with a mallet from the inside.
These days, it seems like anytime I go canoeing, the other party has either a sleek wooden model (beautiful, I must admit), or, more typically, a craft made from one of the new synthetic materials. Aluminum used to be the standard for a mid-priced canoe, but its weight and tendency to dent have reduced its popularity. Aluminum, I've been told, is also a poor choice for whitewater canoeing. It tends to grip when striking underwater objects, and it's also very difficult to repair if it sustains a blow sufficient to create a hole.
But I'm a flat-water girl. For me, the best places to canoe are glassy lakes, slow-moving summer rivers, and slack-water estuaries. So my aluminum warhorse suits me just fine!
Oh, The Places I've Been!
My first major outing with the canoe (which I had immediately christened the "Sally Forth") was on a relatively remote lake in northern California named Lake Pillsbury. More remote than its nearby cousin, Clear Lake, this little lake looked lovely on the map and, indeed, was lovely in person. Had I done a little research, however, I might have discovered that one of the favorite pastimes on Pillsbury is wind surfing -- which gives you some idea of the general weather pattern. For a novice canoeist, 2,000 surface acres of windswept water was no cakewalk.
A few years later, the Sally Forth featured prominently in an anniversary trip I took with my first husband. We decided to canoe the Sacramento River delta, camp along the banks, and do some fishing. Being a young bride and an inexperienced fisherman, I packed only enough food to supplement the tons of fish we were sure to catch. We got a little cranky by the third day of living on cheese, crackers and warm beer.
When I relocated from California to my native Pacific Northwest, water opportunities continued to abound. The massive Columbia River is a short portage from my doorstep, the Snake River is a stone's throw away, and the sleepy Yakima River runs a mile from my house. While the Columbia is wide and swift, both the Snake and the Yakima are slack and pleasant here, as their waters merge with the Columbia. All three of these rivers have afforded me many pleasant daytrips right here at home.
Sharing The Joy
Of course, a joy shared is a joy multiplied, so over the years I've introduced many friends and family members to my love of paddling via the Sally Forth. My second (and final) husband loves the sleepy backwaters and glassy lakes as much as I do. (Yes, I got the canoe in the divorce from Husband No. 1 -- he probably didn't want my namesake taking up space in his garage. Clever of me, eh?) My stepson went from canoeing lazily with dad and stepmom to more extreme canoeing with other young men on his way to becoming an Eagle Scout. My nieces have dipped a paddle a time or two, getting closer to the beautiful Pacific Northwest in which they live. And I've enjoyed more than one "floating hen party" with a girlfriend or two and a well-stocked ice chest.
A few months ago, a friend proudly showed me the teak canoe he was building in his garage. Sleek and streamlined, its shape made my aluminum albatross look -- well, like an albatross! Its wood gleamed richly in the overhead fluorescents. He had a right to be proud of this beautiful canoe. But as for me, I think I'll stick with my old friend and namesake, the Sally Forth.
Sally O'Neal Coates is a travel writer who makes her home in southeastern Washington State. While she believes, both literally and metaphorically, that a woman should "paddle her own canoe," the journey is always better with someone you care about.