Canoeing Sketches

John Boyle O'Reilly

From Athletics and Manly Sport,
Boston: Pilot Publishing Company, 1890, 243-259.

1. Canoeing the Connecticut
2. Down the Susquehanna in a Canoe
3. Down the Delaware River in a Canoe
4. Canoeing in the Dismal Swamp

Canoeing on the Connecticut

THE canoe is the American boat of the past and of the future. It suits the American mind: it is light, swift, safe, graceful, easily moved and the occupant looks in the direction he is going, instead of behind, as in the stupid old tubs that have held the world up to this time.

Who, among the hard workers of our eastern cities, needs two months' vacation, and can only get away from the desk or office for two weeks?

Who feels the confined work tell on his lungs, or his eyes, or shudders at that tremulousness ot the shoulders and arms which precedes the breaking-down from over-work?

All this can be cured by the sun and the wind and the delicious splash of the river on face and breast and arms. Those are they to whom a canoe is a godsend. They can get more health and strength and memorable joy out of a two-weeks' canoe trip than from a lazy, expensive and sea-sick voyage to Europe, or three months' dawdle at a fashionable watering-place.

Boats are for work; canoes are for pleasure. Boats are artificial; canoes are natural. In a boat you are always an oar's-length and a gunwale's-height away from Nature. In a canoe you can steal up to her bower and peep into her very bosom.

What memories are stored away in the canoeist's mind! My friend, Dr. Ramon Guiteras, and I have canoed together in many rivers, in the same little Racine boat (though we now believe that it is preferable to have only one man to a canoe), and we can enjoy rare hours of reminiscence, recalling delightful scenes and amusing incidents from this or that excursion. And let two canoeists, strangers, meet: their talk is an endlessly-pleasant comparison.

[A paddle by moonlight]

Going on this trip on the Connecticut, when we took our boat to the Boston and Maine depot, in Boston, we found another canoe in the baggage car. I happened to know one of the gentlemen who was tying it up, Mr. Morris Meredith, an experienced canoeman; and with him was a veteran of many rivers, Mr. Frank Hubbard, of Boston. What a chat of hours we had! What rapids we ran over again! What tender touches of memory when some river scene familiar to all was brought up! And how unselfishly these two canoemen (who were going on a two-weeks' cruise on Lake Champlain) tore their chart in two, and gave us that part which included the Connecticut River.

When Dr. Guiteras and I started from Boston, we intended to take water at White-River Junction; but, when we reached that place, we found the river full of logs,--the largest quantity ever cut in one year going down this season. But the "end of the logs" was only a few miles above the White River and we were told that, by going farther up, we should have it all clear as we came down, and might follow the logs to Holyoke.

So we took our little boat farther up, till we came to a favorable spot for launching, and there we slid her into the river from a marvellous white sand-bank, which ran into the deep, slow stream, and from which we took our first glorious "header" into the Connecticut.

All along the river, down to Middletown, hundreds of miles away, we found, at intervals, this remarkable kind of sand-bank on which one may take a race, and dive directly into deep water. And yet the bank is not straight, under water, but a rapid incline, easy and pleasant for landing.

What need of details? Miles in a voyage are of no more account than years in a life: they may be filled with commonplace. Men live by events, and so they paddle.

We had ten, fifteen, twenty days ahead, if necessary We were rich in this. Hundreds of miles of beautiful water, splendid days, a new moon, a well-stored locker, and a boat that danced under us like a duck! So we started, dripping from the embrace of the sweet water.

We paddled about fifteen miles, when we saw a tempting nook, a pine grove above a sand-bank, with a dashing stream; and, not far withdrawn, a comfortable farm-house, where we might buy milk and eggs and bread. As we had started late, we landed for the night, and one set off for the farm-house, while the other made ready for supper.

We had a copious larder. We carried too many things, observers said. So we did but we both liked many things when we stopped for meals. Our table was the sand-bank, with a rubber blanket spread. Olives, cheese, sardines, bacon, Liebig's extract of beef,--these looked well. Then came the farm supplies,--quarts of rich milk, a dozen eggs, two loaves of bread, and a lot of cooked green peas, thrown in by the farmer's wife; a bottle of good claret. What a dinner and supper in one! Then coffee, then a cigar, then the philosophies,--quiet talk as we sat looking at the river with the darkness coming down, the frogs sounding resonant notes over on the New Hampshire side, and the white light of the young moon trembling up over the dark pine hills. Then we wrapped ourselves in our blankets, and slept till morning.

We had no tent; we two had discovered that we needed no tent in July or August, though we do not advise others to follow our example. Fortunately for us, we wake in the early morning with the same feeling of refreshment,--our lungs full of the delicious air, and our faces wet with dew. On this first morning, I leaped up at sunrise, shouting "This is the way Nature meant men to live and sleep and wake!"

I shall never forget that first glorious morning. For an hour before rising, I had lain awake looking out at the river, and listening to the strange country sounds around me. All over the grass and low bushes, the spider's webs were stretched, glistening with dew. What a wonderful night's industry! Those webs were nearly all, or quite all, new. The little night-toilers had woven them over our olive bottle, over the gun, over ourselves. The field above us was white as snow with this incomparable cloth-of-silver.

As I lay and looked at one of those webs close to my face, I saw a strange thing. A little gray-and-black spider ran up a tall grass blade, rested a moment, and then ran off, through empty air, to another blade, six inches off. I looked closer surely he must have a fine line stretched between those points, I thought. No; the closest scrutiny could find none. I watched him; he was soon off again, straight for another point, a foot above the ground, running on clear space, and turning down and hanging to it, like a monkey, but still going ahead. I called Guiteras, and he came and saw and examined, and smiled in his wise way when he don't know. We could not see the little fellow's cable, or railway, or bridge. He was as much finer than we as we are finer than mastodons.

And the birds, in that first rich morning speech of theirs, full of soft, bubbling joy, not singing, but softly and almost silently overflowing. Two little fellows flew rapidly down to a twig near us, and began bubble-bubbling as if in a great flutter and hurry; and immediately they flew far and high, as for a long journey; at which my philosophic friend moralized

"Those little fellows are like some canoeists who wake up, and don't wait for breakfast; but bubble-bubble, hurry-hurry, get-afloat, we-have-a-long-way-to-go! Now, we don't do that."

Indeed, we do not. This is what we do. We light our little alcohol stove, and boil two quarts of the rich milk, into which we put our prepared coffee (Sanford's, --a great and precious compound, which we heartily recommend to all fond of outing). Then we plunge into the river for a good swim, , getting the first of the sun as he comes over the hill. The sand-bank is soft to land on; and so up we go to the meadow above, for a four-round bout with boxing-gloves; and, when this is done, we are in good trim for breakfast.

Here let me say that we were never sorry when we selected a white sand-bank or a pine grove to sleep in; the latter to be preferred, on account of the soft pine needles, the healthy fragrance, and the absence of mosquitoes. If the sand-bank is chosen, first scoop out a hollow for the hips and shoulders; spread the rubber blanket, and then the woollen blanket; turn the latter bag-like up from the feet, and draw the rubber over all. Then your couch is as soft as a feather-bed, and a hundred times healthier.

After breakfast, two hours of easy paddling, during which we keep the gun ready, and usually kill about a half dozen birds to enrich our dinner. Then follow two hours of hard paddling, which prepares us for dinner and a rest. After this, two hours of easy paddling, and two hours of hard paddling. Then supper; after which, a slow and easy, meditative paddle in search of pine grove or sand bank. This was our regular daily programme, and its worth was shown by our excellent condition when we reached the end of the river.

Events by the way--how shall I recall them, crowded as they are? We were upset it was in this way. We had carried our boat round a fall, where the logs ran so furiously that nothing else had a chance to Inn. At about eight o'clock in the evening we floated her, below the falls, intending just to paddle down till we found a place to sleep. We did not know, from the dusk, that the rapids extended for miles below the falls. We soon found the water extremely strong and swift, full of eddies and whirls, and mixed up with tumbling and pushing logs. It was the ugliest race we had seen or did see on all the river. We swept down like an arrow for about half a mile, and then a thunder-storm of extraordinary violence and continuity burst. The night became pitch-dark. We could only see the black river, running like a wolf at the gunwale, and the lightning zigzagging the night above. Suddenly, we realized that the logs on our left were stationary, while those in the stream on our right were tearing down like battering-rams. So long as you go with the logs they are gentle as friendly savages, just rubbing you softly like living things, and movable with a finger. But get fast, and let them come down on you, and the ribs of a boat will smash like a matchbox under their brutal drive and the jagged fibres of their tapered butt-ends. The logs on our left were stationary; but the rapid water boiled up between them. We ran swiftly along two great logs--then suddenly stopped. An immense log had been forced up and across its fellows, and as its farther end was driven swiftly forward, its heavy butt came straight for the canoe. Dr. Guiteras got the first blow, on the head and shoulder, which rather keeled us. Then the log took me fairly on the chest, and over and down we went. For some seconds, Guiteras's feet having got fast somehow in the boat forward, he was in a bad way; but he soon kicked free, and we swam at our ease with the boat down the river.

To men who can swim well enough not to lose their presence of mind by a sudden upset, there is little danger in canoeing--probably no more than in riding. It is well, though, to know what to do when you find yourself rolling into the water. When you come up, the canoe is, of course, bottom-side up. By catching hold of her keel, she is easily righted. If there be two swimmers, they should take the two sides, holding her with one hand and swimming with the other. They can pass through any kind of sea in this fashion, safely, and even with pleasure. If there be only one in the canoe, he ought to hold her by the stern or painter ring with one hand, and swim with the other. If he attempt to hold her by the side line will surely upset her again. It is good drill to upset your canoe in safe water half a dozen tunes, and get used to it, as we did on the day following our ducking.

We lost, strange to say, only a few insignificant articles. Everything in the locker was safe, and even dry, including our watches. The gun had not rolled out.

To go into further detail would give the affair more weight than it deserves. I shall only say that in our difficulty we were kindly and courageously helped by Mr. Woodman, a farmer on the shore, for whom we shall long keep a friendly feeling.

This was our only mishap of a serious nature. Of course, we got into many tight places; canoeists must expect it. But we emerged without turning a hair, and we paid for all our troubles with endless interest and enjoyment.

We laughed at all things that came; at a memory of last year; at simple questions by the country lads, who sat with us at times while we feasted, but who never would join us, being shy and proud; at a certain stupid kind of bird that waited every day to be shot; we laughed infinitely at the logs, when we learned their ways; we named them, patted their rough backs, or rubbed the old bald ones; we leaped out and rode on them, and tried to walk on them like the logmen, and always tumbled in, and came up blowing and laughing.

This reminds me of a story. We had stopped near a camp of logmen, and they paid us a visit. Among them was a big brawny fellow, who evidently was full of conceit, and who, we were quietly told, had been bragging all the season of his prowess as a boxer. It was Sunday evening, ammd he was dressed as a heavy swell, cloth trousers, silver watch, a "biled" shirts, etc. When the loggers saw the boxing-gloves, they wanted their heavy man to spar. Guiteras (the best heavy-weight ever known at Harvard and the Cribb Club) was willing to set-to with him. But the big fellow "didn't feel well to-day"; he would only smile in a superior way.

At last we got afloat and shoved off. Then the big fellow jumped up and ran out on some logs in the river, and bared his arm to the shoulder. 

"Look at that!" he shouted, as his biceps crept up to his shoulder like a cat.

At that moment, he slipped off the log and disappeared in the deep water, starched shirt, watch, cloth trousers and all; and the hills roared in concert with the logmen and canoemen as he floundered out and crept, dripping, to the shore.

We had another queer experience within an antagonist who "took it out of us," at least for a day--the sun. We make a point of wearing as little covering as possible--no hats. no sleeves, no shoes while in the boat. Healthy men are never sun-struck. Alcohol-stroke or toil-stroke or stomach-stroke is the real name of sun-stroke. If the bare head feels warm in a boat, moisten it and it becomes deliciously cool.

But sun-burn is another thing, and it must be looked to until the skin toughens. It must not be cooled within water, for every drop becomes a burning lens, to score a deeper mark. On our fourth day out we were badly sun-burnt. Guiteras on that day had swam from 10 A.M. to 5 P.M., making about fifteen miles. The sun had taken bold of our shoulders, arms and face, and next day we were both feverish and cross-grained. Every movement was painful. We stopped at a village and bought half a pound of bi-carbonate of soda (common baking soda). That night we made a thick solution, poured it over the burnt parts and put on tight cotton shirts within long sleeves In the morning the pain was gone, though the blistered flesh remained.

Here is an experience of "cures" for sun-burn; we tried many remedies, some on one arm, some on another; some on our faces, and others on our necks. We tried Nature's remedy--let it alone--and the burns treated in this way were the first to get well. Moral: do nothing for a sun-burn but to take it out of the sun for a day or two.

As we came down the river one thing was noticeable and very enjoyable--the courtesy and kindness of every one on the banks. At Brattleboro we found two gentlemen who owned canoes (Mr. Harry Lawrence and Mr. Fred. L. Howe), who lent us a pair of single paddles, and who were otherwise exceedingly kind.

At Springfield we stopped long enough for me to lecture in the evening (by previous arrangement). There was a large audience, and Guiteras sat on the platform, brown as an Indian, and fell asleep. Fortunately he was shielded by a large tropical plant. We stopped that night at the hospitable house of my friend Father O'Keefe, of West Springfield, who made the hours short for us.

We had been told that the beauty of the Connecticut ended at Springfield; but it is not so. Indeed, one of the loveliest stretches lies between Hartford and Middletown, though the river under Mt. Tom and Mt. Holyoke is surpassingly beautiful. I never saw more delightful scenery than in the river valley just above and below Northampton.

And let no canoeist pass Springfield without visiting the famous United States arsenal, where,

"From floor to ceiling,
Like a huge organ, rise the burnished arms."

Nowhere in the world is there a nobler view than from the tower of this building. This is a superlative word, but it was the opinion of the great Humboldt, who, on a famous European river, said "There is nothing finer than this, except the view from the Arsenal at Springfield."

At Hartford, the Canoe Club met us most kindly, and its commodore, Mr. Jones, made our stay bright and our departure memorable.

From Hartford to Middletown is one of the finest stretches of the Connecticut, and it is by no means low-banked or monotonous. One of the peculiarities of the river is that it is almost as wide and apparently as deep at Hanover as in this latest reach.

It is not necessary to go a great distance up up the Connecticut to find splendid canoeing water. If one had only a week's time, and entered the river at Brattleboro', or below Turner's Falls, he would find enough beauty to remember for a lifetime.

The distances on the river appear to be quite unknown to residents on the banks, who evidently judge by road measurement. We found, in most cases, that the river distance was at least a third to a half longer than the road.

One of our rarest pleasures came from paddling for a few miles up the smaller rivers that run into the Connecticut. They are invariably beautiful, and the smaller ones are indescribable as fairyland.

One stream, particularly (I think it is a short distance below White-River Junction, on the New Hampshire side), called Bromidon, was, in all respects, an ideal brook. It had the merriest voice, the brownest and most sun-flecked shallows; the darkest little nooks of deep, leafy pools; the most happy-looking, creeper-covered homesteads on its banks. We could hardly paddle into it, it was so shallow; or out of it, it was so beautiful. Guiteras wanted to write a poem about it. " The name is a poem in itself," he said;" "any one could write a poem about such a stream." All the way down the river his muttered "Bromidon!" was like the self-satisfied bubble-bubble of the morning birds.

[At the mouth of the river]

This leads me to say that, in the rapid growth of canoeing, which is surely coming, it is to be hoped that the paddle will be the legitimate means of propulsion, and not the sail. If men want to sail, let them get keel-boats and open water. The canoe was meant for lesser surfaces. Indeed, the smaller the river, the more enjoyable the canoeing. A few feet of surface is wide enough. With the quiet paddle, one can steal under the overhanging boughs, drift silently into the deep morning and afternoon shadows; study the ever-changing banks, birds, even the splendid dragon-flies and butterflies among the reeds and rushes.

As an athletic exercise, paddling is one of the best, or can easily be made so. A canoe trip of a couple of weeks, diversified by two good swims daily, will bring the whole muscular system into thorough working condition. Dr. Guiteras, who has had unusual experience in athletic training, and has given it special attention, is of opinion that no other exercises arc so excellent as paddling and swimming in conjunction.

A word about the logs. They are not so bad as they look, nor as their general reputation. We should, of course, prefer a river without them; and canoeists on the Connecticut can easily avoid them by finding out when they start and cease running. But they always keep in the current; they people the river with odd and interesting fellow-voyagers, and they are as harmless as sheep in a meadow when you know how to handle them.

Since this trip on the Connecticut, we have canoed many other rivers, some of them streams of much greater volume. We had in these the width of water, the calm greatness of the flow, the splendid reaches unbroken by falls and rapids and dams; but we often missed the over-hanging branches, the flash and twitter among the leaves, the shadows that made the river look deep as the sky, and the murmur of the little brown brooks that are lost in the great stream, leaving only their names, like Bromidon, clinging to the water like naiads.

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URL: 1998-07-05
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