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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Trip of a Lifetime

On Snyder's Pond

By Tamia Nelson and Farwell Forrest

A Note to the Reader

It's late March, 2001, and Ed's gone down to Albany for a book fair. At his suggestion, Brenna's left Jack in charge of the shop while she takes a day off to go kayaking at a favorite local pond. It's a welcome change from the hectic job of sorting out the gear for their trip up north—a job they'd only just begun last time, and one which looks like it's going to keep them busy for some weeks to come. The story continues.

December 12, 2000

Chapter Five

It was Friday morning—a warm, sunny, spring morning. Hours earlier, long before dawn, Ed had left for the Albany Antiquarian Book Fair, driving a rented van that sagged under the weight of hundreds of books in wooden display cases. Brenna had joined him for an early breakfast, watched him drive away, and then gone right back to bed, feeling surprisingly little guilt. Now it was eight o'clock, and she was just finishing her second breakfast. That was cause enough for celebration, but she knew there were even better things to come. She was going paddling, and she had Ed to thank.

Just that Wednesday, coming back to the shop from an estate sale, Ed had noticed that the ice was off Snyder's Pond, an impoundment on Stuyvesant Creek. Though small—it covered only about a hundred acres—the pond lay at the center of a much larger marsh, and it was one of his and Brenna's favorite places. Tucked into the hollow between Grays Mountain and Foster Hill, it came alive at ice-out, drawing migrating waterfowl of every description. Better yet, it only took half an hour to drive to it from the shop. A state wildlife management area, Snyder's Pond was too small to be noticed by the guidebook writers. For most of the year, Ed and Brenna had it all to themselves, sharing it with no more than a handful of local fishermen and duck hunters, as well as an occasional group of schoolchildren on a nature outing.

Ed cursed his luck. He wanted to take the Tripper up to the pond right then, but he had to get ready for the book fair. Still, he thought, there was no reason why they both had to forego the pleasure, was there? So, when he got back home, he gave Brenna the good news and suggested she take the kayak out to the pond on the next nice day. To no one's surprise, Brenna put up only token resistance to the idea.

Now the day had come. Her second breakfast finished, Brenna walked out to the barn to get the kayak. It hung suspended from the hand-hewn beams, cradled in two webbing slings. As Brenna unhooked the slings and lowered the boat onto her shoulder, she remembered how they'd gotten it in trade for a complete set of the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. It had been a good trade. Each party to the bargain had gone away convinced he'd gotten the better of the other.

Brenna still thought they'd gotten the best deal. Putting the kayak down on the grassy margin of the drive, she wiped off the winter dust with a damp sponge and then checked the old boat over. It certainly was old—a Seda Vagabond touring kayak, she guessed it had been built sometime in the late 1970s. Thanks to careful storage and gentle handling, though, it looked pretty good. The green gelcoat finish on the deck had dulled a little, to be sure, and the golden Kevlar hull was covered with small scratches, but both hull and deck flexed under the pressure of her hand without cracking. Better yet, the double seams were smooth and tight, with no sign of loosening or delamination. The old kayak was still an elegant, functional craft.

Continuing her inspection, Brenna knelt on the grass, pulled off the nylon cockpit cover, and stuck her head inside to be sure no mice had set up housekeeping. The cockpit cover had done its job. Nobody was home.

That hadn't always been the case. Once she'd thought the cockpit cover was only for traveling. Then—it was years ago now—she'd been halfway through a release-swollen Class III drop on the Sacandaga, just above the railroad bridge at Hadley, when she felt something crawling up her leg. She was so startled she'd almost dropped her paddle, but she recovered quickly and bounced on down through the haystacks to the take-out. By the time she finished the run, whatever had been crawling around had settled down, and she'd almost thought she'd been imagining it. When she popped her spray skirt, though, she'd found a white-footed mouse cowering between her thighs. Further inspection had shown that the stowaway wasn't alone. The mouse had a nest and a family of young in the bow peak, just in front of the float bag on the left side of the foam pillar.

The story had ended happily. The mouse had gone back to her babies, and the kayak had gone back on the VW, with the travel cover firmly snugged down over the cockpit. When they got home, mother and brood were doing fine. That was the last time the kayak went out that spring. When summer came, Brenna checked the boat and found only an empty nest. The mice had moved on. She could still hear their descendents scurrying through the barn whenever she went out to look for something after dark.

The VW was long gone, Brenna mused, but the kayak was still with them. Lifting her head free of the cockpit, she thrust her arm into the boat up to her shoulder and pulled the four float bags out, one by one. None were punctured and all still had a little air in them, so Brenna immediately shoved them back. Then she topped them all up, leaving each one just a little soft to allow for expansion as the sun warmed the kayak. By the time she'd finished, she was a bit light-headed, so she lay back and looked up at the sky. There were a few feathery cirrus clouds visible in the west. "It'll most likely rain in a day or two," she thought. "Good thing I'm going paddling today," she said out loud, just to make it official and put the weather gods on notice.

It took Brenna only a couple of minutes more to get the rest of her kit from the barn: life-vest, spray skirt, asymmetric touring double-blade with the vaulting-pole shaft, and the short T-grip single that she took along to serve as a back-up paddle on easy water. Then she stuffed the cockpit cover behind the foam-block seat, grabbed the far side of the cockpit coaming and lifted the boat onto her right shoulder, keeping her right arm inside to steady it and hold it in place. She carried it over to their pick-up, an aging Ford F-150. Standing on a milk crate to give her a better reach, she heaved the kayak into place on the left side of the home-made bar rack that crowned the aluminum cap. The boat rested upright on the foam-padded crossbars. Brenna reached behind the kayak seat to retrieve the cover from its temporary berth. Then she snugged it down tight over the cockpit.

Kicking the milk crate along the drive beside the truck and standing on it when she needed to, she hooked two heavy-duty bungee cords through screw-eyes in the center of the cross-bars—one went in front of the cockpit and one behind—and then stretched the cords taut over the kayak's deck, clipping them to eyes set in the ends of the bars. Satisfied that the belly bands were secure, she tied both bow and stern down to the lashing points on the bumpers, threading quarter-inch nylon Goldline through the grab loops at each end of the boat in an upside-down vee, and taking up the slack with the same taut-line hitch she used for tent guys.

"Almost done" she muttered to herself. Whispering the names of the items on her mental checklist, she tossed them into the bed of truck: "Life-vest, paddle, spare, spray skirt, milk crate…." Then she made a quick dash into the shop and upstairs to the bedroom to put a neoprene short-john on under her light wool pants and shirt. "A damn sweaty nuisance," she remembered Ed saying, "until the day comes when you dump!" Lastly, she made a brief stop in the kitchen to pick up her rucksack, stuffed with spare clothes, lunch, and a steel thermos of hot, sweet tea.

Going downstairs, she stepped into the shop. Jack was already on duty, his head buried in Life on the Mississippi. Brenna dropped a copy of the DeLorme atlas on the counter, folding it back to the page showing Snyder's Pond. She circled the pond with a red marker from the Dundee Marmalade crock next to the till, told Jack she'd be back by five, waved good-bye, and almost ran out the door. She was as happy as a kid skipping school.

On the road at last, Brenna headed east. Soon she was out in the country. She cranked down her window. The welcome smell of wet earth and new life flooded into the cab. She popped Stan Roger's Northwest Passage into the cassette player. Before the last notes of "The Idiot" had died out, she was rolling onto the gravel parking area at Snyder's Pond.

When she switched off the ignition, the music stopped. She got out of the cab and listened. There was no hum of traffic. There were no sirens and no honking horns. Instead, red-winged blackbirds cried konk-er-ree among the cattails. A breeze sighed through the branches of the tall white pines on the ridge overlooking the pond, and woodpeckers hammered out their territorial tattoos. From somewhere nearby, an unseen chipmunk sounded the alert. Brenna breathed deeply. For the first time in days, she was completely at peace.

Grinning unselfconsciously, Brenna released the bow and stern tie-downs. Then she pulled the milk crate from the truck and carefully removed the bungee cords, lifting the kayak off the rack. Only minutes later she was carrying it along the winding trail to the state-maintained dock. Once there, she set the boat down on the low float, and stood, hands on hips, scanning the shimmering water of the little lake. Mallards quacked from the shelter of the reeds, while a muskrat swam steadily toward the grassy mound that was its home.

Running back to the truck, Brenna kicked off her low pacs and pulled on knee-high wellies. After making sure her spare keys were on the knotted cord around her neck, she donned spray skirt and life vest. (She'd had second thoughts about the spray skirt, but it kept the drip from the paddle shaft out of the boat. The water was cold. She decided to keep the skirt on.) Then she picked up the two paddles and her rucksack, locked the truck and cap, and set off down the trail again with a light step. A moving cloud of curious chickadees and white-breasted nuthatches accompanied her, chatting all the while.

Once back at the float, she slipped the T-grip spare under the criss-crossed shock cords on the Vagabonds's stern deck. Her rucksack went into the hollow behind the seat. Now she was ready. Brenna put the kayak in the water. She squatted, facing the bow of the boat. With her left hand, she clamped the paddle to the cockpit coaming behind the seat. One blade of the paddle now rested on the float. Next, Brenna eased her left leg into the boat, resting her right hand on the paddle shaft between boat and float. Then she swung her right leg in, too, and settled down in the seat. Ripples spread out across the water. The mallards started quacking again. Balancing her paddle across the deck in front of her, Brenna fitted the spray skirt over the coaming and shoved off. She was on the water for the first time that year!

Taking a few preliminary strokes away from the float, she tried a low brace on either side, followed by a sculling draw, first left and then right. "Yes!" she blurted out to no one in particular. "I haven't lost my touch!" Only the mallards replied. Brenna ghosted on, paddling just enough to keep the boat moving forward. The water reflected a pale blue sky. Low hills rose up to the east and west, their slopes a checkerboard of farm field and woodlot. Male red-winged blackbirds, flashing their showy epaulets, argued over nesting sites. As she turned into a small bay, three mallard drakes exploded into the air right in front of her. They circled and then set down farther up the lake. Floating silently past the muskrat house, Brenna heard soft, insistent mewing coming from inside—muskrat kits, she concluded.

Not wanting to disturb the kits or their mother, Brenna paddled quietly away and hid her boat in a stand of bulrushes, right next to a half-submerged, rotting stump. It had only been a couple of hours since she'd finished her second breakfast, but she was already hungry. She tucked her paddle under the bow-deck shock cords. Snapping the spray skirt off the coaming, she hauled out her rucksack and put it between her legs. Undoing the two straps holding down the flap, she removed the thermos and poured herself some tea, setting the cup down on the stump. Then she poked about in the recesses of the pack, finally finding her hastily-prepared sandwich—rough-sliced slabs of Swiss cheese, slathered with coarse English mustard and folded into half a loaf of French bread. Leaning back against the coaming, she pulled her feet free, being careful not to tumble the rucksack into the water, and stretched her legs out across the deck. "This is the life!" she thought.

For some time afterward she did nothing but eat and drink, conscious of no external sensation beyond the warmth of the still-climbing sun. Then a distant splashing awakened her interest. It came from near the muskrat house. She reached into a pocket of her life-vest and removed a little 8-power Tasco monocular, slipping the lanyard around her neck so it wouldn't plummet to the bottom if she dropped it. Raising the glass to her eye, she saw that there were five small, brown heads in the water, with a larger one keeping station alongside. "Mom's taking the kids for a swim," Brenna thought, and continued to watch the fun, while she fumbled in the life-vest's second pocket for a tiny sketch pad and mechanical pencil. Soon she was sketching the family outing.

Hours passed. Brenna paddled from point to point around the small pond, stopping now and again to eat or sketch or doze. Several times she beached the kayak to stretch her legs and take a pee. ("That's one advantage of a canoe," she muttered, as her foot sank deep into the marshy ooze on one of her trips ashore, water pouring in over her boot-top. "A girl can pee without leaving her boat!") Before she knew it, the sun was low in the western sky. It was time to go.

Paddling back to the float, she hit a rock with her left paddle blade, in a place where no rock should have been. Seconds later, a flattish, dark-gray dome rose up out of the water beside her, not two feet from the kayak. It was about as big around as the old-fashioned steel dish pan they had at home, Brenna noticed, and it was studded with small, angular plates. Except for a slime of algae, it looked a lot like the armored shirts that she remembered seeing medieval archers wearing in old manuscript illustrations. Then she saw a large, reptilian head and two unblinking eyes. A snapper, she realized—and a hell of a big one, at that. Brenna sculled carefully away, putting distance between herself and her new companion. She hoped all the muskrat kits had made it safely home.

Once she reached the state dock, it didn't take Brenna long to carry her boat and gear up to the truck. It was still the only vehicle in the parking lot. She loaded up, tied the boat down, and got ready to go. The clock on the dash showed that it was almost four-thirty. No time to lose.

Halfway home, Brenna heard a sound like a shot. It seemed to come from somewhere over her head, but she couldn't be sure. Alarmed, she hit the brakes and pulled off the highway onto the narrow shoulder. A quick walk round showed that the tires were all OK. Then she saw that the rear bungee cord was missing. Either she hadn't hooked it on properly or it had just let go. Whatever had happened, she'd been in too much of a hurry. She should have checked everything before driving off, and maybe she shouldn't have depended on bungee cords at all. It was a good thing she'd tied both bow and stern down. "Still, any landing you can walk away from…," she whispered to herself, hoping that this wasn't as stupid as it sounded. Getting the milk crate out to give her a place to stand, she used a scrap of yellow poly rope to replace the lost bungee cord. It was awful stuff—slippery and almost impossible to tie, but she made it work. In just a little while, she was back on the road, having carefully inspected the remaining bungee cord and retightened the bow and stern tie-downs.

When she rolled up the drive at 5:10, Jack was standing at the back door with a worried look on his face, hands thrust deep into his pockets and a bulky turtleneck sweater crowding his jawline. He noticed the bright yellow poly rope right away, though, and walked over to the truck. "Plastic rope and rubber bands," he said, shaking his head. "Time ya figgered out how to tie things down proper." The rebuke stung Brenna a little, but Jack smiled when he said it and that took much of the sting away.

Somewhat sheepishly, she nodded in agreement, and told Jack about her misadventure on the trip home. "Got any suggestions for a good book on knots?" she joked.

"Well, now," Jack replied, smiling even more broadly, "I don' know about a book, but I think I know where ya can find someone to help ya learn!"

To be continued…

Mink Pond

Copyright 2000 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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