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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Trip of a Lifetime

Old Glory

By Tamia Nelson and Farwell Forrest
tamia@paddling.net and farwell@paddling.net

July 3, 2001

Chapter Seventeen

Deputy Sheriff Royal "Bubba" Buck loved being out on the lake in the department's Whaler, with the blue strobe and the siren and the big gold star on the side. After years of ticketing out-of-staters and busting pot-smoking punks, he'd finally snagged a cushy job. About time, too. He shifted his Glock so that the butt didn't dig quite so hard into the soft flesh spilling over his belt. "It don't get no better 'n this, do it?" he asked his partner, for maybe the third time that morning.

Deputy Cody Tromblay sat slumped in the bow seat, his half-open eyes on the water ahead. "It sure don't, Bubba," he replied, giving the ritual response he knew was expected. "It sure 'n hell don't." Then he closed his eyes. It was only eleven o'clock. Saturday. The Memorial Day weekend stretched ahead, and the air over Long Lake shimmered with humid heat. Rivulets of sweat ran down Deputy Tromblay's back, slowly soaking the waistband of his Fruit of the Loom boxers. A dark stain spread around the equator of his uniform. He could really use a cold Bud right 'bout now, he thought.

Bubba was thinkin' about how nice a cold beer would be, too. Eleven o'clock and the lake was already busy. 'Course that damned canoe race didn't make life any easier, either, what with them jet-skis and water-ski tow-boats cutting across the buoyed race corridor between the village and Rock Island, four miles to the north. They weren't supposed to do that, he knew. It was off-limits to anyone but race participants. But Bubba was damned if he was goin' to ticket some law-abiding, tax-paying citizen who just wanted to use his public waters to pursue a little happiness, like it said in the Constitution. The town board were a bunch of…. Bubba looked around automatically, even though the wife was miles away and he hadn't said anything out loud. Anyway, the board were soiling their pants thinkin' about how their insurance premiums would go up 'less they gave those canoeists someplace safe to have their little race. It wasn't his problem, though. Nossir. He wasn't goin' to stop nobody havin' fun. Where were those damn canoes, anyway? The sooner they came through, the sooner he could relax. Accidents waitin' to happen, that's what them canoes were.

The morning dragged on. Bubba waved to all the folks he knew—families in fast runabouts, girls on jet-skis, old couples on pontoon boats with their grandkids. Sometimes he'd throttle down and chew the fat awhile with some guy from the Lodge. It was getting hotter and stickier by the minute, too. The water was flat calm and the sky was a sickly milk-white. There'd be a thunderstorm by nightfall, Bubba figured. Sure to be. He unzipped his bright-orange PFD and tugged his sodden uniform shirt away from where it stretched taut across his belly. He hoped he might feel a little cooler that way, but he didn't. He grabbed a foam-shrouded can of Mountain Dew from the little gimballed holder next to the wheel and took a long swig. "God," he muttered, "I need a beer real bad!"

Deputy Tromblay didn't hear him. He'd turned the volume up on his boom-box so he could listen better over the roar of the 'Rude and the shouts of passers-by. He was listening to the "Jerkin' Jake" Slaughter Show on WFLU, and today Jerkin' Jake was broadcasting a live remote from his boat, right on Long Lake. Just then he was playin' Summertime, and the Livin' is Easy. When it came to an end, there was Jerkin' Jake hisself coming through loud and clear over the husky burble of a big inboard: "And the livin' is easy, boys and girls. At least it is on the good ship Floozie out here on Long Lake in the heart of the beautiful Adirondack Mountains! I'm Jerkin' Jake Slaughter and this is WFLU—and you know, don't you, boys and girls, that we're in-fec-tious! Once you catch the Jerkin' Jake habit, you just can't shake it. And speakin' of shakin' it, here's I'm Feelin' Good…."

Cody twisted around with difficulty. Damn department oughta spend a little money for some extra-extra-large PFDs! He caught Bubba's eye and shouted around the wad of Red Man parked in his cheek. "What you think, Bubba? You think we'll see Jerkin' Jake sometime today?"

"Maybe," Bubba replied. "'Course it's a looong lake, ain't it?" And his voice broke up into an avalanche of guffaws. It was a full thirty seconds before he could speak again. "Still, that Floozie of his, she's a fast mover. Hacker-built, y'know. What's she got? 250-275 horsepower, maybe? That Jake, he ain't a bad guy…for a, whaddayacallit, middle-aged hippy, I mean. My cousin—you know Steve, dontcha, Cody?—he does a lot of work on Floozie for Jerkin' Jake, and he says Jake's just a regular guy. You know, jes' like you 'n me."

A Cessna floatplane with a full load of sightseers throttled back and descended right over their heads, the scream of its engine drowning out all other noises. In the momentary silence that followed the splashdown, Jerkin' Jake's voice could be heard picking up the patter after the latest track: "And I hope you're all feelin' good, 'cause today's the Third Annual Long Lake Flatwater Canoe Race, sponsored by—you guessed it, boys and girls—WFLU, your Adirondack public radio station. You goin' to be huffin' an' puffin' all the way from the village up to Rock Island and back, you better be feelin' good, right? Right! Now I'm goin' to hand you over to Brad Schmo, who'll treat you with the ever-lovin' care that all good boys and girls deserve. And don't forget that WFLU's own Ryan Manley, our ace Adirondack reporter, is in this race for real, too. He's goin' for the gold in his little Feather Duster, and Brad'll be talkin' to him later. Now it's over to you, Brad. Catch the FLU!"

Jake threw the mike over to Brad and then pushed the throttle all the way in. Floozie growled even louder and started to move out, her bow wave diminishing to nothing as she came up on plane and began zig-zagged across the narrow lake. Fishermen in john-boats fled in panic, seeking the safety of the weedy shallows.

Power! Jake knew you couldn't have too much of it. A broad grin split his tanned face, and his long, gray-flecked hair streamed out behind him, tossed about by the same sixty-mph gale that made the huge American flag whip back and forth on its transom-mounted jackstaff. He and his Floozie were goin' places! Sure 'nuff! Down to the head of the lake first, and then back to see how the race was comin' along.

Riding shotgun beside him, Brad intro'd the next track as best he could, screaming at the top of his lungs in the hopes of making himself heard over Floozie's full-throated roar. Meanwhile, Jake's wife Jill, creative consultant to the Dean of Frontenac Lowlands University and program director at WFLU, clung for dear life to the back of Brad's leather-upholstered chair. Crowded together with her on the U-shaped bench seat was WFLU station manager Lili Bolero, news director Sara Oyley, and Hap Weiner, O.D., host of WFLU's call-in health show, Dr. Hap's Happy Health Hour.

When Jake settled down on a straight course, Lili leaned forward, tapped him on the shoulder, and handed him a fat joint. Shielding it carefully to keep it burning, he sucked the pungent smoke deeply into his lungs, held it down, and then exhaled slowly. A sense of euphoria enveloped him, and the speeding shoreline seemed to slow perceptibly. Jake took another deep drag and gave the joint back to Lili.

Brad, his voice now cracking under the strain, was trying to shout his way through the announcements at the top of the hour. "So stay tuned. The media sponsor of the Third Annual Long Lake Flatwater Canoe Race is your very own WFLU, and our coverage of the race is supported by Dollars and Scents Aromatherapy—'Your good health is our business!'—Peace of the Water Realty—'Hurry up and get your piece of the water now, before it's all gone!'—and the International Osmosis Fund—'Dedicated men and women working tirelessly to end the scourge of salt-water blister!'"

Reaching the south end of the lake, Jake skidded through a screaming one-eighty and then headed north at full throttle, scattering six aluminum canoes from the Forest Lawn Baptist Youth Camp and scaring all thoughts of sin out of the fifteen boys and three counselors in them. The float-plane that had landed earlier had dropped its cargo of camera-laden tourists and picked up another load. Now it was back in mid-lake, laboring to get airborne. Jake saw that they were on a collision course. He eyeballed the distance between them and eased up a hair on the throttle, but he kept his heading, giggling at the thought of the stories those tourists would soon be telling. Just as he'd figured it, the bright yellow Cessna took off right over Floozie.

Soon the Hacker thundered under the Route 30 bridge. A minute or so later, Jake caught sight of the canoe racers struggling to hold their boats on course in a chaos of conflicting powerboat wakes. Sweeping up alongside Ryan Manley's Feather Duster, Jake pressed the horn button on the mahogany dash. The resulting BLATT! was loud enough to be heard over the bass grumble of Floozie's inboard. Ryan jerked his head up, his eyes rolling wildly. His paddle wavered in mid-stroke, and Feather Duster lurched until her starboard gunwale dipped right down to the water-line. Ryan threw himself out on brace for all he was worth, pulling her back upright just before she capsized. He didn't look too happy, but Jake and the gang all waved to the rapidly-retreating figure, anyway. They were having the time of their lives.

Well to the north of Floozie and Feather Duster, Bubba Buck was still on patrol. He saw six jet-skis coming up the lake toward him in tight formation. They sort of reminded him of the Thunderbirds—a real class act. Then he noticed two canoes and a rowboat in the water between the jet-skis and the Whaler, and he raised his arm to wave them off. The jet-ski jockeys had already seen the other boats, though. They broke formation, split into two pods of three and passed the much slower boats on either side, enveloping them in a cloud of brown exhaust and wetting the canoeists down with their rooster-tails. It was just about the funniest thing Bubba'd every seen. But then one of the canoeists made a gesture with an upraised middle-finger and yelled something nasty, and Bubba started to get angry. Hell, there might be kids listenin'! He squinted into the brown haze. Damn. It was some hippy broad. Not a local. And not wearin' a life jacket, neither. He flipped on the strobe and the siren and headed for the perp.

Zoe Grimes, her long, silver-streaked black hair pulled back in a thick braid, rested her paddle across the gunwales of her rented Grumman and waited to see what the fish-cop wanted. "What the hell?" she said to her twin sister Abby, who was seated in the stern. "Looks like Mr. Fuzz is gonna come callin'." Zoe took a last, resolute drag from her cigarette and then spat the butt into the water.

Paddling just ahead of the Grimes twins, Ed and Brenna hadn't noticed Zoe throwing the bird at the jet-skiers. Seeing the sheriff's Whaler headed their way, they pivoted their loaded XL Tripper around and back-watered gently. Still farther ahead, Sonny Marco rested on his oars, while Ken Grimes lay back in the stern of the guideboat. The cast on Ken's broken leg was wrapped in a plastic trash bag and propped up on their packs. He'd been video-taping Sonny at the oars, and as he turned toward his sisters in their canoe, he swung the camcorder around, too.

"You just pull over here, ma'am," Bubba Buck ordered. He stared down at the two women in the old metal canoe. They sure looked a lot alike. Slowly, it dawned on him that they were twins. The one with the long hair, the one in the front of the canoe, stared at him silently, her eyes hidden behind mirrored aviator glasses. Then he noticed that some guy in a cast in the rowboat was filming the whole scene. Bubba didn't like that at all. "You turn that thing off!" he yelled across the water, but the guy didn't seem to hear him. In any case, he kept the camera glued to his eye. "Tourists!" Bubba fumed. They never knew how to behave.

Deputy Tromblay slid the fleshy tip of his tongue across his lips and stared at Zoe. More exactly, he stared at her sweat-soaked, tie-dyed tank-top. Meanwhile, Bubba fumbled with his ticket book. His sunglasses were starting to fog up, and he lowered his head to see over the top of them. He, too, was having a hard time keeping his eyes off Zoe's tank-top. It looked like it might be on the brink of some kind of sudden, catastrophic failure. Bubba started thinking about Dolly Parton. He tried to speak, but no words came out. He swallowed, desperately wanting a swig of Mountain Dew. He tried again, producing a harsh, croaking gabble. "You're not wearing a life jacket, ma'am," he began.

Zoe didn't let him get any further. Her voice was like honey on a razor blade. "And if I was wearing my life jacket, officer, what would you and that other fine example of American manhood over there"—she nodded dismissively toward Deputy Tromblay—"have to look at, I wonder?" She paused, looking Bubba up and down like a butcher inspecting a diseased carcass. Then she reached under her seat and pulled out a green Seda PFD. "You may not know what this is, officer. Let me help you out. It's a Type III Personal Flotation Device—that's PFD, officer—and its been inspected and approved by the United States Coast Guard. It may have escaped your attention, officer…it's not written on my cleavage, after all…but New York doesn't require adults to wear their PFDs, just keep them available. And as you've already noticed, I'm an adult. Since I used to swim for my college team and since the water temperature here is around sixty degrees, I figure I'm not taking too many chances if I choose to take my PFD off from time to time. And while we're on the subject, officer, isn't there something in the state navigation law about reckless operation? Or are jet-skis exempt?"

Having said her piece, Zoe stopped and waited for a reply with an air of patient expectancy. A family party in a slow-moving pontoon boat burbled along within fifty feet. In the bow of the boat, an elderly woman wearing huge, wrap-around sunglasses sat in a rocking chair. She stared at Bubba and the canoeists. Then she spoke to a man standing beside her, and her shrill voice shattered the sudden silence. "Whass goin' on, Carl? Is that Royal Buck over there? The fat one talkin' to that lady, I mean. He's a deppity sheriff now? Jeez! I wouldn't trust him with a ham samwich. When he was a snotty-nosed brat, I caught him stealin' candy bars from the store more times 'en I can remember. And dirty! Couldn't never get him to take his finger outta that big nose!"

Her embarrassed companion made shushing noises, but Zoe and Abby were already shaking with laughter. Bubba flushed, shut his ticket book and dropped heavily into what he liked to think of as his command chair. He started to say something to Zoe, but then thought better of it. Instead, he gave the Whaler a little gas and pulled away.

"Yaa!" Zoe exclaimed in triumph. And then she made loud oinking noises in the direction of the receding patrol boat's wake.

"Cool it, Zoe!" Ken shouted across the water as he put the camcorder down in his lap.

Ed and Brenna exchanged glances and shrugged. Sonny, still resting on his oars, shook his head and said, "Well, that was fun. Where're we going to camp?"

Abby scanned the shoreline with her binoculars. "There's an empty stretch of beach up there," she said, pointing toward the northwest. All eyes followed her finger and squinted in an attempt to penetrate the heat shimmer over the lake's surface.

Ed took the ten-power monocular from the pocket of his life jacket and examined the beach carefully. It certainly looked inviting. A fringe of tall white pines framed a small bay. There were no cabins or camps nearby. "Deserted," he said at last. "And that's kind of strange. An empty beach on Memorial Day weekend? On state land? What's wrong with it?"

"Maybe nothing," said Brenna. "Maybe we just got lucky—for a change." And she grinned.

"I'm going to push for it," Sonny said, setting to work with his oars. "If it's trashed or something, we've got plenty of time to look for someplace else."

"Right," Abby agreed. "Let's go for it!"

Ed looked across the lake, its surface broken only by the wakes of passing power boats, and thought regretfully of their new sail rig, stowed in the bilges of their canoe. Then he shrugged and started to paddle. "Must be some kind of natural law," he grumbled, more to himself than to Brenna. "When you don't have a sail, the wind's always blowing a gale. When you get one, it's always calm."

They'd gotten a late start to begin with, waiting for Pete and Karin Neary to arrive. Just as Brenna had concluded they'd simply forgotten the whole thing, Karin had called to say they had to cancel because something had come up with their daughter, Jennifer. Karin hadn't said what the problem was, and Brenna hadn't wanted to pry, but the others had taken the news philosophically, their growing impatience eased by a giant box of Shirley's World Famous Buns. Now the Nearys were planning to meet them all at the foot of the lake on Sunday. They'd keep Ed and Brenna company down the Raquette River to Tupper, while the others remained behind for the rest of the weekend.

When the gang finally reached the Long Lake Village put-in, they discovered that a canoe race and a community garage sale had filled almost all the available parking spots. The weather was hot, the lake was buzzing with powerboats, and they worried that every campsite along the north shore would be claimed.

Now, however, it looked like they were in luck. They'd found an empty campsite. Brenna kept Leviathan's bow pointed just off the northern tip of a large island. The beach was a half-mile beyond. Drops of sweat slid down her spine. Her eyes smarted and her throat was dry.

Zoe lit another cigarette and puffed as she paddled. Even in the still air, it was hard work. She and Abby had just finishing tilling more than five acres, and then they'd planted row after row of vegetables for their new business, Earth Goddess Organic Veggies and Free-Range Chickens. Now their backs were killing them. They fell further and further behind the others.

Ken, on the other hand, was having a great time. He trailed his fingers in the water, flicking droplets at Sonny now and again. "I didn't think being a passenger could be so much fun," he said, grinning from ear to ear. "You don't happen to have box of chocolates and a parasol, do you?"

"If I did have any chocolates, they'd have melted by now," Sonny grunted, not amused. "How're we doing?"

"Getting close to the island," Ken replied. "Then it's only, oh, ten or twelve miles more." He grinned again. "Hey!" he exclaimed. "There's a house on that island. And what a house! I can't see it too well. It's sort of hidden in the trees. But it looks at lot like…What's that place by Frank Lloyd Wright?…Falling Water. That's it. And there's someone else rowing a guideboat, too, just coming round the tip of the island! We're headed right for her. I wonder if she's the owner?"

Sonny threw a glance over his shoulder and saw a blue guideboat just emerging from the shade at the north end of the island. The other rower had heard Ken's voice. She turned to look his way, and waved. She wore a white tank-top that revealed evenly-tanned, well-muscled shoulders and arms. Her short, dark hair was a symphony of tousled curls. Ken thought she looked like some kind of movie star. And could she ever row! Ken watched her, entranced. He decided she was just about the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. He wished he weren't wearing the damned cast. He particularly wished that Zoe and Abby hadn't written lewd limericks all over it in red magic marker.

Further up the lake, Jerkin' Jake was watching the clock. He knew he had to get himself and the WFLU Brain Trust down to Rock Island in plenty of time to catch the canoeists as they turned round for the return leg of the race. But that didn't mean he wouldn't have time for a little fun, did it? "See that big tree?" he shouted to Brad. "Watch this!" And he headed for a huge overhanging hemlock on island's western shore.

Deep in the pool of shadow under the hemlock, Joe Sergeant sat quietly in the little plywood rowboat he'd made for himself more than ten years back. It wasn't much to look at, he knew, but he was proud of it, nevertheless. He'd even stuck a handkerchief-sized American flag on the bow in honor of the coming holiday. Joe didn't hear the throb of the Floozie's 275-horse inboard up the lake. In fact, he didn't hear much of anything. He'd lost his hearing when he was nineteen years old, at exactly the same instant that he'd lost most of his body below his pelvis, after a bobby-trapped 155-mm howitzer round had gone off almost at his feet. He'd been angry at first. It had all seemed so God-damned stupid. But he'd come round. He knew he was lucky to be alive, and he'd gotten used to living in a silent world. Enjoyed it, even. (He missed the bird songs, though. He had to admit that.) He'd even gotten used to living without legs. His arms were real strong.

And Joe loved fishing. It kept him sane. He about went crazy in the winter before the lake froze up hard and he could put his shanty out. He had no close friends, and no family, either. No family, that is, except for what he called his "wild family"—the mice and the squirrels and the other critters that lived in and around his cabin. Once a month, the local postmaster would take an unofficial walk down the trail that led to Joe's cabin, bringing what little mail he had in his post-office box. The postmaster also brought Joe some groceries. What with the groceries and his garden and the fish out of the lake, Joe got by pretty well.

Come ice-out, Joe fished every minute the good Lord gave him, right up till the lake started to freeze again in December. He'd wheel himself from his cabin down to the water on the ramp he'd built when he first moved in. Then he'd row along the shoreline, fishing in the shade of the overhanging trees. When he was in the boat, Joe almost forgot his legs were gone. Who needs legs in a boat? Fish didn't need legs, did they? On the water, in his little boat, Joe didn't need legs either.

The island that was owned by the Hollywood Lady was his favorite spot on the whole lake. He'd met the Hollywood Lady. Not to talk to, of course. Joe was pretty shy even before he'd had half his body blown off. And he wasn't much of a talker even when he could hear what other folks were saying. But he'd met her. Often. She'd see him when she was out rowing her guideboat and she'd smile at him and wave to him every time. Not like some folks he could think of.

So he spent a lot of time in the shade of the island's big hemlock, casting and retrieving. Patiently waiting for a strike. Like he was doing today. Only today he'd been so quiet that the Hollywood Lady had passed right by him without seeing him. "Well," Joe said to himself, as he saw her blue-painted guideboat row past, "there'll be another day." And he started his retrieve.

Off the north end of the island, Sonny was closing on the blue guideboat. "Hi!" shouted Ken. "Love your boat!" Even though the island hid Floozie's approach, the growl of the big motor was already making conversation difficult.

"It's an original William Allen Martin," the woman shouted back. "She's my pride and joy. That's why I named her Old Glory." And she gestured to the gold-leaf lettering on the bow. Then she smiled at Ken and Sonny, her teeth dazzlingly white in her bronzed face.

Sonny brought his boat closer. He stopped rowing when the two guideboats were only about fifteen yards apart. Both were still in the island's shadow. He was breathing hard. He removed the red bandana from around his neck, wetted it in the lake, and wiped his face.

Ken knew he'd seen the woman somewhere. But where? Maybe she was a movie star! Was that possible?

Suddenly, Ken realized he could feel the throb of an enormous engine. Feel, not hear. It was like being caught right under a thunderhead in a storm. He grabbed the gunwales and opened his mouth to shout a warning.

Ed, Brenna, and the twins saw Floozie speed up the lake and disappear around the other side of the island. "Sonny! Ken!" Ed screamed, cupping his hands around his mouth. But it was no good. He could barely hear his own shouted words.

Floozie roared along the island's western shore. "Look at me!" crowed Jerkin' Jake, reaching up to snatch a low-hanging branch from the hemlock as the big boat skidded underneath. The branch snapped and came away in his hand. Jake brandished it like a sword. In his imagination, he was a gladiator preparing to receive a reward from his Emperor. He swung in even closer, following the shoreline. Then he saw two men in a guideboat in the shade at the foot of the island. He twisted the wheel to the right, only to see another guideboat with a lone occupant—a blue guideboat. Floozie slewed and skidded between the two boats at fifty mph and then roared away, missing the blue boat by just five feet. The noise was deafening.

Joe Sargent didn't notice. The big powerboat's wake had tossed his little rowboat up into the air while he was in the middle of a retrieve. It also threw him into the water. He landed hard, his head slamming against a large, wave-washed cobble. The impact made a sound like an eggshell cracking, but no one heard. A single, convulsive shudder wracked Joe's legless trunk. Then he was still. He bobbed quietly in the shallows, deep in the shadow of the sheltering hemlock where he'd spent so many hours fishing. His small boat floated beside him. A dark stain spread out through the water as the wakes of passing powerboats lifted and dropped Joe's abbreviated body against the rocks. Little by little, the cobbles began to wear away bits of Joe's face.

The Hollywood Lady was luckier. Floozie's wake lifted Old Glory and dropped her, too, but her owner stayed with the boat. A rock cracked a 125-year-old plank and water started to poured in. One oar washed overboard.

Sonny, in deeper water, recovered first. He brought his guideboat alongside the blue boat and grabbed the nearest gunwale.

"That bastard smashed my boat!" the woman screamed, shaking her fist in the direction of the rapidly-disappearing Floozie.

Ed and Brenna now appeared, paddling furiously. "Anyone hurt?" Brenna shouted across the water while they were still a hundred yards away.

"Only my boat. My lovely, lovely boat!" the woman replied. She was bailing frantically with a wooden scoop, but it was no use. Old Glory settled deeper into the water.

"We've got to get your boat to shore," Ken said, watching the blue boat sink underneath her owner, who choose just that moment to step out of the foundering craft and stand beside it. "Where's your dock?" he asked.

Before the woman could answer, Floozie came into view again, engine throttled back, moving at a walking pace. Jerkin' Jake was at the wheel, squinting down over the bow. "Hey," he said. "I'm real sorry 'bout that. Looks like everything's OK, though, right?"

"No, everything is bloody well NOT OK!" a woman screamed, standing thigh-deep in the water, her arms held rigidly at her sides, her hands balled into fists. "Just wait till my lawyers get through picking your bones, you irresponsible lout! You won't even have a rubber duckie to put in your bath."

A distant rumble of thunder could be heard to the south. Ken gazed wonderingly at the figure of the woman standing beside the sinking boat. She's beautiful, he thought. He blushed deeply and looked down at the water to hide his face. A tattered, handkerchief-sized American flag floated up to Sonny's boat. "Wonder where that came from?" Ken muttered to himself.

To be continued…

Blue Boat

Copyright 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

















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