Don’t forget to use the boat

My eagerness to build boats and, at the moment, finish my Pocket Cruiser has one disadvantage: I sometimes forget to actually use my boats. Day after day, I tinker with my sailboat while my little green canoe sits unused in a corner of the garage.

I made amends today by taking the “Six Hour Canoe” to a nearby lake. Arriving soon after sunrise on a weekday, I had the water all to myself and felt that nature was on full display for my private enjoyment. Birds filled the air and I lost count of the number of great blue herons I startled along the shoreline.

I love the woods and generally take hikes in nearby state parks three or four times a month, but nature looks different from the water and animals act in unexpected ways. Soon after launching I noticed two deer in the treeline—a common sight in rural Pennsylvania. But they surprised me by casually wading into the lake and swimming to the opposite shore—maybe 200 yards across deep water. Their heads were all that I could see—two furry bumps on the calm surface, moving purposefully from one shore to the other. I had never seen deer swim. But, then, I had never seen deer from a canoe.

I was on a large lake dammed and maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers. Farther down, it opens into an impressive body of water and is filled on summer days with dozens of noisy powerboats and jet skis. However, I launched in the upper reaches, far inside a no wake zone, a region used only by fisherman, most working the waters with quiet trolling motors. But even they were largely absent as I explored a deep inlet that eventually turned into a shallow marsh fed by a narrow but navigable stream. I paddled   upstream until it become too narrow even for my canoe, found a spot just wide enough to turn around, and let the current take be back into the lake. Hearing the grasses slide under and around my little boat as I rested the paddle on the gunwales, I felt inexpressibly happy. I was exactly where I wanted to be.

I hugged the shoreline, working my way back to the parking lot as the sun started clearing treetops. I watched turtles sunning themselves on logs and felt quite self satisfied as I poured a mug of French roast coffee from my thermos and scanned the trees for birds, vowing—for the hundredth time—that I would eventually learn to identify more than robins and chickadees.

This trip was also an opportunity to test a small modification to my canoe. The six hour canoe has a high rocker and flat bottom, which makes it hard to track on the water. During my first outings last fall, I noticed that it wanted to skitter around with each push of the paddle. In addition, the flat bottom was easily scraped when dragged in and out of rocky or sandy shorelines. To fix both problems, I decided to attach a small keel— a strip of  1×2 pine down the center of the hull. I tapered the ends and held it in place with six stainless steel screws (a dab of caulking at each screw hole helped create a watertight seal). I finished the job with a coat of paint.

As I hoped, this small addition protected the bottom from scratches and did seem to help keep canoe on track. I felt like a veritable Daniel Boone (who was born nearby) with what I imaged to be my expert handling of a wilderness-worthy canoe. I’m sure I really looked like a middle aged guy on a manmade lake, but a couple of hours of solitude at sunrise can do wonders for a man’s fantasy life.

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