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A river runs through it
A man. A woman. A canoe. A fight.

I love canoeing. I love it because I havenít done it in many years, and so have forgotten all but its most pleasant aspects. This is why I enthusiastically accepted when dear friends, Paula and Tim, invited my husband and me to spend a lazy Saturday afternoon floating down the Concord River in canoes. Itís the stuff summer fun is made of, is it not?

No, it is not. We had been on the water mere minutes when we started to bicker. So did our friends. In fact, every couple we encountered on the river was bickering. "Paddle faster." "Paddle slower." "Itís not a race, for Godís sake." "Look out for the bridge." "Stop rocking like that." "Whatís wrong with you?" A day canoeing down the Concord River sounds a lot like the waiting room of a marriage counselorís office.

Obviously, one of the unpleasant aspects of canoeing Iíd forgotten is that it has the power instantly to reduce a relationship to its most basic elements, revealing the fundamental natures of all parties involved. And it can strip away the decorum that allows us to live peacefully under the same roof.

There are many reasons why canoeing brings out the Bickerson in all of us. The first is that canoeing is a deceptively difficult sport. You think youíre going out for a leisurely float. But canoes have an inherently poor design. Their primary purpose is to capsize, especially when they contain people. Most have little or no keel, which marine architectural theory tells us is necessary for a vessel to hold a straight course, but which our puckish Native American forebears obviously thought was a white-guy thing. The sources of power (the paddlers) are unevenly distributed fore and aft, thus making straight-line travel even more of a pipe dream. Throw in a quixotic river current and variable winds, and you have a recipe for frustration at best, grave bodily injury at worst.

No one is ever truly prepared for what happens when these factors come together. The canoe will rock, it will spin, it will tilt, it will stop, then go, then stop again, it will careen wildly out of control, often directly at logs, rocks, or other canoes. It will threaten to jettison you without a momentís notice. It will do these things even if you know exactly what you are doing. But if, like most of the people on the Concord River last Saturday, youíre renting a canoe, chances are you donít.

The second reason canoeing is such a relationship minefield is that everyone paddling a canoe thinks that he or she is in control. A canoe is an excellent case study in why there is only one steering wheel in a car, one tiller in a sailboat, and one set of yellow handlebars on a Big Wheel. While it is important to get input from all passengers about the vehicleís direction, in the final analysis, only one person can steer. But in a canoe full of newbies, anyone who wants to steer, can (and probably will). This is why it is common to see canoes going in circles.

Everyone thinks he or she knows how to paddle a canoe, even though it is a skill that takes years to perfect. As such, when a canoe veers from the center line, the first thing an inexperienced canoeist does is blame the other canoeist, who obviously doesnít know what the hell he or she is doing. Each is convinced that the canoe would be going along straight as an arrow if the other person in the canoe would just paddle faster/slower/harder/softer/on the other side/with better technique/etc. This explains why the sound you are most likely to hear while canoeing is not birds or the wind, but people bitching at each other.

Iím pleased to report that after about two hours, one large picnic lunch, and a bottle of wine, the nastiness wanes considerably. Eventually, my husband, friends, and I all realized that the river was in charge, not us, and that the best we could hope for was to arrive back at the dock within a fortnight. Paula and Tim made peace with the fact that she is a variable-speed paddler, and my husband made peace, sort of, with the fact that Iím not very good at steering a canoe underneath bridges (unless you want to go under them backward ó in which case Iím an expert).

But perhaps the most amazing thing about canoeing is this: we hadnít even gotten back to the car before we were making plans to do it again. Not only does canoeing bring out the worst in people, but it somehow erases the worst from oneís memory the minute itís over, leaving behind only the sound of water lapping against the shore, the songs of the birds in the wildlife sanctuary, the feel of hot sun on your shoulders, and the laughter of people you love. This, I suppose, is the most important thing canoeing reveals to us about our relationships: theyíre a lot better if you remember the beautiful stuff, and let the rest roll off your back like water washing over the bottom of a capsized canoe.

When sheís not canoeing, Kris Frieswick can be reached at k.frieswick@verizon.net

Issue Date: July 11 - July 17, 2003
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