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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

In the Same Boat

Part 2: Nice Boat! Whaddaya Call It?

by Farwell Forrest

Tamia Nelson and I are going to write about canoes and canoeing—and kayaking, too, of course. It's a subject close to our hearts. We met in a canoe, after all. Before we begin, though, perhaps we ought to decide exactly what we mean by "canoe." That makes sense, doesn't it?

Hmmm.... You know, this may not be as easy as it seems. Suppose you had to explain what a "canoe" is to someone who'd never seen one—to a man from Mars, say. He has no idea what you're talking about. What do you tell him?

No problem, you say? How about "A canoe is a small open boat, pointed on both ends, and propelled by paddles"? You'll find this definition or something similar in most dictionaries. Seems like a pretty good start, don't you agree?

But is it? "Small"? The canots du maître of the North American fur trade were 36 feet long. That's not small. Not in my book, anyway. And the aboriginal log-canoes of the Pacific Northwest coast were even bigger. Some of them stretched over 50 feet.

"Open"? Now that's obviously wrong, isn't it? What about the C-1s and C-2s of the whitewater racers? What about our cousins "across the Pond"? When a Brit takes you round to his back garden to show you his canoe, he's just as likely to pull the tarp off something that we Americans would call a "kayak"—a decked boat with a center cockpit, propelled by a double-bladed paddle.

"Pointed on both ends"? Here, surely, we're on safe ground. But, then again, what about the big, square-stern canoes? The Grand Lakers of Maine, and the even bigger Rupert House canoes of James Bay. They're obviously canoes, aren't they? And they're not pointed on both ends.

Things aren't going very well, are they? The man from Mars is getting pretty confused. What's left? Oh, yes—"propelled by paddles." Seems pretty safe. Wait a minute, though. The fur trade canoes were sailed on the lakes whenever the wind allowed, and the Beothuk and Micmac each rigged their big sea-going canoes with sails for coastal passages. Come to think of it, a lot of people have dropped rowing rigs into their canoes at one time or other. An oar isn't a paddle, and rowing isn't paddling. And let's not forget those Grand Lakers and Rupert House canoes. Each one has a big outboard motor hanging off its broad square stern.

OK. What have we learned? A canoe can be small or large. It can be open or decked. It can have a pointed stern or a square one. You can paddle, sail, or row it—or you can put a motor on it. You can even lie back in it and let it drift with the current. I'm afraid this hasn't been much help to the man from Mars, though. He's given up trying to understand. He's already walking away, shaking both his heads. But you're still with me, I hope—and I hope you see my point. It isn't possible to define "canoe" in a way that doesn't include a great many boats that don't look anything at all like the canoes in my backyard and yours.

We don't need to worry about this. When the learned Justice Potter Stewart was sitting on the bench of the United States Supreme Court, he was asked to define "obscenity." He took his time. He sifted whole libraries of books. He consulted experts and academics by the score. He even asked his clerks. In the end, however, all he could say about obscenity was that he knew it when he saw it.

Fair enough, I guess. I know a canoe when I see one. So do you. And some of these canoes are nothing like the ones you'll see in the outfitters' catalogs. They're all canoes, though, and each one has something to teach us. In the months to come, Tamia and I are going to tell you their stories—and a lot more besides.

Canoes come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. They serve every purpose imaginable. But all of them are canoes. Canoeists come in all shapes and sizes, too, and we all have different interests. What do we have in common? We're all out on the water. We're all following life's river toward the sea. And, when everything is said and done, we're all in the same boat.

That's what's really important, isn't it?

Verloren Hoop Productions 1999

That's it for now. Tamia will be here next week. In the meantime, we'd like to hear from you. Send your comments and questions to us at (No attachments, audio clips or family snaps, please!) I won't promise that we'll answer each letter, but I can promise that we'll read every one—and we will. 'Nuff said.

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