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A canoeing adventure with Grandpa

John Allen in 1954 with his grandfather's canoe (13 kB JPEG)

My father took this photo of me with Grandpa's canoe at the Alderside dock in Dwight in the summer of 1954, when Grandpa was 76 years old and I was 8. I regret that there is no photo of me in a canoe with Grandpa, but my father was very frugal with film.

This was the summer of my canoeing adventure with Grandpa. After dinner at Alderside one evening, Grandpa and I set out in the canoe for a short paddle on the lake. I had learned to steer the canoe. To show off my skill and get tips on technique, I paddled in the stern while Grandpa sat comfortably facing me in the bottom of the canoe, his back against a backboard and cushion. 

We became more ambitious the farther we went. I paddled as far as the town beach, and then we decided to continue to the mouth of the Oxtongue River. Once at the river mouth, we decided to paddle up the river a bit. And once we had gone a mile up the river, we decided to go all the way up to Marsh's Falls. For the entire 4 miles from Alderside to the falls, I was the only one paddling, and Grandpa's pride in his grandson was swelling, and the evening sky was growing darker.

When we reached the falls, Grandpa congratulated me profusely, but suggested that he take over, since it was getting late and I might be tired. He took my place in the stern, and I sat in the bow. With a strong, steady stroke, Grandpa paddled us back down the river.

By the time we reached the river mouth, all we could see around us was a starlit sky, ringed by the dark outline of the surrounding hills. In those days, people did not leave electric lights shining across the bay at night as they do now.

"Which way is Alderside?" I asked. "That way?" I pointed. "No," said Grandpa, "more over that way." He set his course and continued to paddle. As we approached the far shore, I could see that Grandpa had set his course with astonishing accuracy -- the dim outline of the Alderside boathouse loomed directly in front of us.

We were both feeling very good about ourselves as we pulled the canoe into the boathouse. I was very proud to have discovered that I could paddle and steer a canoe 4 miles all by myself. On the other hand, it did not surprise me that Grandpa could still paddle more strongly than I could. I took his physical strength and endurance for granted.

Grandpa's skill at navigation did come as a revelation to me. I was suddenly aware of his deep resources of knowledge and skill, acquired over hundreds of canoe trips and many summers on Dwight Bay.

We pulled the canoe up into the boathouse. We shut the door and walked up the bank and across the road, Grandpa congratulating me all the way. We went in through the front door of Alderside, then I pretty much ran through the front room. I burst into the middle room brimming with pride, and Grandpa lumbered in behind me. My mother, my father and Grandma were sitting around the fireplace. "We went all the way up to Marsh's Falls!" I exclaimed. "And he paddled all the way up by himself!" said Grandpa. But then we noticed the glum expressions. "Alex, it's quarter after ten. We were about to call the police," said Grandma. "We thought you had drowned."

My excitement faded. Now I felt young, and foolish, and stupid.

Grandpa apparently wasn't as crestfallen as I was. A couple of months later, when I was back home in Springfield, Pennsylvania, Grandpa sent me a letter to give to my Scoutmaster. Grandpa explained that he was a former Scoutmaster and described my feat of canoeing in glowing terms, without mentioning our poor judgment. No matter if I was only a Cub Scout, and wouldn't be eligible for any merit badges for another three or four years, Grandpa urged my Scoutmaster to award me a canoeing merit badge without having to take any of the usual tests.

I wish now that I still had that letter, but I don't think I'll ever find it. I think that I kept it for a year or two and then put it in the wastebasket. I knew by then that no Scoutmaster would grandfather me into a merit badge. The joy which I had shared with Grandpa had been muddied by shame.

But for one evening, Grandpa in the foolishness of age, and I in the foolishness of youth, got to share a special time together. And as time passes, I regret it less.

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Contents 1999 John S. Allen

Last revised 31 October 1999