Seven days on a river in a blue canoe

When Aaron and I were little, our parents read many, many books to us.

I take that back: When Aaron and I were little, our parents read a few books many, many times to us.

One of our favorites was Three Days on a River in a Red Canoe by Vera B. Williams. In it, a little girl spots a red canoe at a yard sale. Her “adventurous mom” agrees to buy it, and the two of them head out on a trip with the girl’s aunt and her cousin Sam. I think we liked it so much for two reasons: one, the little family encounters many mishaps along the way (wind, Sam falling out of the boat, a rainstorm), and two, they had a red canoe, just like we had growing up.

All of my childhood canoe trips, from the Delta Clearwater to the Gulkana, from the Fortymile to the Tangle Lakes-Delta, from the Jim River to the Upper Chena, were spent in the front of the boat with my dad (and later, my brother) in the back. The men in my life were responsible for navigating the boat, directing it through a series of draws and back paddles or by telling me how I should assist.

A few weeks ago, however, all of that changed.

Jason and I were planning a seven-day canoe trip on the Wild and Scenic Birch Creek. The stretch we were going to float was 110 river miles between Twelvemile Summit and mile 137 along the Steese Highway. As we were planning on hunting for caribou, Jason tossed out the idea that he, my dad (who was also planning on coming), and I each take our own boat for roomier hauling. Later that night, Jason asked, “Wait, do you feel okay taking your own boat?” The question surprised me. I had just accepted an independent trip as a feasible option, but I suppose it was a major undertaking.

“Of course!” I said.

So, when the day came, we packed up Jason’s Old Towne Penobscot, Dad’s 14-foot SOAR Canyon, and Jason’s 16-foot SOAR Explorer. We also packed steaks, cheese dip, whiskey, books, toothbrushes, fishing poles, a rifle, and a Junie.

We got to the put-in. Jason had loaded up my boat as Dad I set the shuttle. Its cheerful blue sides were glistening in the sun. Old coolers were cradled between the tubes and a spot had been made ready for a Junie. I buckled up my life jacket and swung the boat into the water before hopping in and plopping down, mile 0 of 110.

The first 10 miles or so of the river is very shallow, so much so that one has to frequently step out of the canoe to drag it along or re-set it in a deeper channel. Many mishaps were had those first few days, just like the family in Three Days. I got stuck under some trees and remained until Dad waded out to dislodge me; I nailed Jason to the bank on a particularly hairy corner; I went coursing down many river bends like a merry-go-round, spinning along freely. One of the benefits of an inflatable canoe: it’s almost impossible to tip. But definitely possible to get stuck under trees, pin other boats to banks, and spin in silly circles.

Birch-24Birch Creek: full of fun obstacles. Photo credit alaska.org.

I had told Jason from the beginning that “I would be better at the end than I would be at the beginning.” And that’s definitely true. On the last few days, I easily bypassed every tricky corner and glided through some self-chosen “adventure” channels. That being said, I worked hard to keep up with the strong, experienced men in my life that were almost always ahead of me. I powered through wind and through my own mental and physical challenges. I reminded myself to be present, to see the animals, to enjoy the canyons, to acknowledge my straining muscles. I paddled up to the take-out on day seven, 110 of 110 miles, and felt a quiet success. I had known I had it in me, just like the two adventurous moms in Three Days. Maybe I didn’t always know what I was doing, and maybe I sometimes knew that I would definitely smash into that bank up ahead, but I did it, one paddle stroke at a time, always moving forward (even in the middle of a spin move).

Dedicated to Dad, who is one of my most stalwart readers and who suggested I write about this independent experience of mine.

Birch-17Fast-flowing water. Photo credit alaska.org.

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