Canoeing is not for cowards


We were just “novices” on a swift, dangerous, and remote river…


Canoe Trip

Debbie Closurdo

February 26, 2005 ©



A wise motto for any camper, boy scout, or boater is “be prepared”. However, in our eagerness to get out on the water in our new canoe, we neglected to consider the experience level needed to navigate Indian River in a remote section of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Although we thought we were adequately prepared for our canoe excursion, being only “novices” attempting to paddle on a swift, log-choked river proved to be a test of our nerves, resources and faith.

Before leaving our “primitive” river-side wilderness campsite that early morning I had a vague feeling that my husband Larry and I should have started the day with a devotion, or at least a quick word of prayer. Unfortunately that feeling was quickly lost in the business of readying ourselves for the canoe journey ahead- wrapping tuna sandwiches in waxed paper, drinking in the rich aroma of coffee and mint tea, greeting passing fellow campers with a friendly morning “hello”, packing dry bags with extra clothes, and programming our truck’s GPS to navigate the unfamiliar back roads leading to the remote canoe access site. We thought we had everything under control. Lost in the beauty of the deep woods all around us, the green mossy carpet beneath our feet, the little orange and yellow mushrooms springing up everywhere, the branches lying on the forest floor dotted with fringelike lichen; the Creator’s gentle hand seemed to be everywhere. Little did we know that the unpredictable side of nature would be waiting for us in the river!

We gave our faithful dog “Barkley” a pat on the head, telling him to “be a good boy” as he waited for us in our camper, assuring him that we would soon return. Then with all our gear packed, we set off in our truck (with the canoe stowed on the roof), navigating the many twists and turns of the road leading to the canoe access site. Some of these roads turned into muddy “two-tracks” that didn’t look very well-traveled, and it didn’t quite occur to me when we finally reached the wilderness campground access site that the only way anyone would know to look for us (if we became lost or stranded) was by the words Larry drew with his index finger into the mud-splattered rear window of the truck: “gone canoeing- back soon”. Also, it was likely that even a park ranger would not come upon the vehicle for some time- hours, if not days- and would not even know what “soon” meant!

Even so, we only chuckled as Larry scrawled these words in the mud (our foremost concern at the time was not having the vehicle ticketed or towed away while it was parked there). Then we tossed our gear into the canoe and carried it down a series of rugged mossy steps to the river bank, where we were able to ease it (and ourselves) into the twinkling water.

According to our “Canoeing Michigan Rivers” guidebook this trip should only last 2-3 hours. We were cheerful as we set out, traveling with the current. At first the river seemed bright, open, sparkling, and happy. Our spirits were buoyed by the seemingly abundant fish and birdlife we saw all around us. This was the first hour.

As time went on the way became more choked with brush and fallen debris. Branches hanging low over the water hit us in the head, spiders rained down into the boat, forcing us to frantically scoop them out with the paddles before they crawled on us- I almost lost a paddle before I told myself to keep a cool head and concentrate on the obstacles that loomed up in the river ahead. Little hairpin twists and turns appeared seemingly as if from nowhere, hampering our way and often sending us spinning bow-first into the bank (as we frantically “overcorrected”) or lodging us into clumps of deadfall. Treacherous logs floating just below the water’s surface threatened to beach us out and send the canoe toppling over as it teetered and slid over these obstacles. With increasing frequency, as the river became more remote and congested with deadfall, we were forced to bank the canoe and carry it out around the obstructions to a more passable section of the river. The ground in-between the trees of the bank proved to be uneven and muddy, and I bit my lip as I stumbled through the muck, the bow of the canoe banging into my shins for the “umpteenth time”, taking care to avoid the stinging nettles and low-hanging pine branches. Behind me, Larry wasn’t so lucky- his hat was knocked off his head as he carried the stern- he frowned as he untangled himself and tried to fish it from the weeds, dropping the canoe with a thud on his foot and nearly lurching forward into the mud. This trip did not seem so fun anymore!

Back in the canoe again and braving the current, another hour or two passed, and the silence between my husband and I grew increasingly uneasy as the river seemed to run faster and became even more choked with logs and branches. I was wondering how much worse could this trip get, and when were we going to see the signs of human settlement that signaled our final destination?
Sitting in the bow as a “spotter” my heart soon sank when I saw that we had to navigate yet another treacherous stretch. A voice inside me groaned, “Why didn’t we choose a popular, well-groomed river frequented by livery canoes? What on Earth are we trying to prove with this futile endeavor…?”

Then all of a sudden it happened- I didn’t even have time to scream. The rushing water pulled the canoe onto a partially submerged log, spun it around like a toy top and dumped it over, spilling us and our gear into the cold water.
Larry pitched in head-first (he swears he could see the bottom), but his life jacket quickly buoyed him to the surface where he clung to a fallen branch. The rushing water swirled around me as I plunged in to my waist, luckily landing me close to the river bank where my feet hit bottom. With my right hand I clutched at some course tree roots sticking out of the bank at shoulder height, simultaneously giving an involuntary cry. I saw Larry’s shoes sailing past, just inches from my fingertips, disappearing hopelessly into the swirling foam as if in slow motion, never to be found again.

The bigger problem at hand, however, was rescuing our canoe. The capsized vessel swirled recklessly towards the middle of the river to wedge itself into the limbs of a fallen tree. With a fierce gurgling sound the river pulled it partially under. The rest seemed to be a blur as Larry darted forward to grab the edge of the canoe, trying to pry it from the clutches of the deadly current. He lunged and bellowed as he tried to pull it free, almost falling backwards. I could only watch helplessly at the battle being fought between man and nature.

Lucky for us, Larry won the battle, and with one last grunt and yell he wrenched the canoe from the tree and shoved it towards the bank where I was able to snag the rope on the bow, pulling it towards me. Amazingly there appeared to be no damage or holes. The only problem was that the canoe was floating just below the surface, completely submerged with water! In a no-nonsense voice, Larry then commanded me to “start bailing”. I gave him an incredulous look that said, “you want me to do what??”(and stifled the urge to laugh at the ridiculousness of the request), but to humor him (as he was quite angry by now) I made a couple futile scooping motions before I realized a better solution, and then commanded in a no-nonsense voice of my own, “let’s dump her!” Then, with our heads level again, we worked as a team, turning the vessel upside down over our heads and flipping it back onto the water- empty!

It wasn’t until a few months later looking back that I realized that Providence had been watching out for us when we purchased our canoe- unknowingly we had bought one that had air chambers built into the floor and body of the vessel (most other brands of canoe don’t have this feature), so that when we submerged, the canoe still would float. If it had been another variety (without the air chambers) it would have sunk to the river depths, lost forever, as were Larry’s shoes. What a predicament!

We could only relax once we secured the dry bags and rest of the gear inside the canoe and had safely boarded her again. I didn’t even dare to think what could have happened if the canoe had broken up or sank, leaving us stranded in the “middle of nowhere” to spend a cold, lonely night in the woods. We didn’t even have an accurate map of the river or even a compass- and we had seen only 2 dilapidated cabins the whole time- and no people! There were no roads, no signs of cars or roadways and no trash floating anywhere- nothing to indicate any proximity to civilization. Even our cell phone was useless- no cell towers in this area to carry any type of reliable signal. For a city girl like me, the lack of human activity made for a growing anxiety.

Nevertheless, I felt that the Lord had kept us safe when we capsized; getting the canoe back afloat was nothing short of miraculous, so I took a deep breath and was determined to trust His care to the end of this adventure. So what if we had to spend a night in the woods- at least we had dry clothes and a few sandwiches (although soggy)…and I didn’t have to be at work for another week…
Even so, we both were anxious to be done with this harrowing trip and paddled as fast as we could, enduring another long stretch as the river terrain wound into a marsh. This part, going thorough the winding marsh was worrisome as the river seemed to be lost in the bushy overgrowth, narrowing down into “dead-ends” and trickled into nearly impassable rivulets. Another fear gnawed at me, “what if we somehow “lost” the main river and became trapped in the marsh?” We could not even see any sign of river banks, so choked was the river with all the bushes and reeds. The silence was oppressive- only wind, distant honks of ducks, our rapid breathing as we paddled and the eddying water. The sun had long passed its highest point and was quietly setting. Our muscles were tired, but we were too worried to stop even to take time to rest and eat. What if darkness fell before we reached our destination? Even so, a little voice inside countered my uncertainties with the scripture verse I had known since a child, “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sew or reap…and yet your heavenly Father feeds them…Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” (Matt 6:26-27; NIV) I took a deep breath, feeling a little stronger, and kept paddling.

It seemed like we had been canoeing for hours- I didn’t even notice my damp and clinging clothes or my stomach rumbling. This three-hour trip seemed to stretch into over 5 tedious hours. The bends and turns seemed to go on for eternity. At this point our trip seemed like a twisted Outward Bound adventure. Even Larry seated in the stern paddled vigorously with me in stony silence. As we left the marsh and entered a more “normal” stretch of river, I still didn’t recognize any of the unfamiliar terrain and wondered, “where is that dock that signals the end of our journey and why aren’t we there yet?” I was almost ready to give up hope, but just when I felt I couldn’t go on any longer, my mouth felt dry as cotton and my arms began to feel like wax from the fatigue, we finally saw the dock up ahead!

It may have been a trick of the setting sun but I could have sworn I saw a guardian angel sitting there on the narrow dock waiting for us- beckoning us in- and with a sigh of relief we hauled our battered canoe and weary selves out of the water and finally were able to change into dry clothes, relax, and eat on the shore. Then we clinked our juice bottles together in a toast- we made it!

Our dog Barkley was happy to see us- his brown eyes wondering “what took you so long?” and seemed to be more forgiving of us than we were of ourselves. What a foolish decision to attempt a canoe trip on that desolate stretch of river- we sure had made that guardian angel work overtime! However, in the end, we could only be thankful that we were blessed with the physical and mental resources we needed to persevere and come home safely.

Even while acknowledging divine intervention, Larry emphatically stated that we must also add two things to our list of “standard canoe gear”- a hand-held GPS unit and most importantly a chainsaw (to cut through all that annoying deadfall) I suppose that a man only feels adequately prepared for the challenges of life when wielding some type of power tool…even in a canoe! Yet I came away from that trip quietly reflecting on how often we are given to worry when faced with a tough situation, even when we have the assurance that our heavenly Father will care for us, just as He does the birds of the air and the lilies of the field.

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