The First Adventure
By Brian K. Brecht
I don’t think I appreciated the value of this trip when it happened, but now, looking back, I realize this was probably the first example of “an adventure” I ever had.
I’m not exactly sure how it all came about, but likely began as conversation between my best friend’s father (Paul Sr.) and mine, culminated in the idea of a weeklong canoe trip down the Thornapple River. How or why I really don’t know, it wasn’t as though I was kicking and screaming to go canoeing. In fact I think at the time I was somewhat reluctant to the entire idea.
But as the weeks went on, my best friend Paul (Jr) and I, secured the required permission from school to be gone for the better part of a week. The most frustrating moment was asking “Yoda”, our Algebra teacher, who did indeed look just like the diminutive Star Wars character, if I could go. He grilled me on “why he should let me go”, likely due to my failing algebra grade. But somehow, perhaps because I was going with Paul, he seemed to let my academic excellence slide. Perhaps feeling if I spent time with my best friend, he might instill in me the require algebraic knowledge he possessed and I did not.
This was in many ways the first of those experiences to push myself, and do something I wasn’t completely comfortable with. Hearing someone talk about a weeklong canoe trip sounds great! But going out and doing it yourself, becomes an exercise in “I just don’t have time, I really can’t afford it”, or “why should I bother”. In this case, it wasn’t up to me, but up to the two fathers who crafted the idea of some father and son bonding.
For Paul and his father, this was nothing out of the ordinary. Both had been long time hunters, campers, and general outdoorsmen. For my dad and I, this was unusual. My Dad loved the outdoors, to be sure. He got his hunting licenses every year, he worked outside whether freezing cold or blistering heat. He taught me how to shoot and explore the forests around our house as best as he himself understood. But my Father fell into the same category (guess where I got it from), of there’s always a reason why we couldn’t go “do that thing”. So I think part of my resistance to this endeavor, was a lack of belief it would actually happen to begin with. But here I was, asking “Yoda” to sign my permission slip, in the middle of the fall semester, and wondering what the hell I do now, that he actually signed it?
Paul and I had become the best of friends in a very short time. We’d only known each other since the start of freshman year, but to this day he remains one of only a few men I call brother. So to head out on this adventure with him seemed only right.
We set out on a bright but chilly morning, putting in on the southwestern shores of Thornapple Lake. I can’t remember a boat launch specifically, or if we just put in where we could find access to the water. I do remember, it being a rather cool October morning, the wind cresting over the water as I looked out over our piled supplies.
I remember being awestruck and confused by the amount of packing Paul Sr. put into the canoes. We had two canoes, conveniently one for each “family”. Dad and I in one, Paul and his father in the other, both fathers, taking the steerage position at the back of the canoe. Paul Sr. clearly had done this before. In a time before carbon fiber, or plastic camping gear, Paul Sr had fashioned two, white, (heavy) wooden camp boxes that, by design, fit perfectly between the gunwales of the canoes midsection. In one, all our food and cooking supplies. In the other, tools and camp needs, most of which I didn’t understand why we would need.
Along side this, packed the rifles, the tents, the packs, and all the things I was completely unprepared for, but somehow managed to bring along. I’m sure, all thanks to my dad.
We kicked off, the canoes now sitting much lower in the water than when we first dropped them in, and soon we were paddling across the Lake to the river mouth on its western side. I remember feeling irritated right away, as we paddled straight into a headwind and wondered what in the hell had our fathers gotten ourselves into. I mean come on! Wasn’t this a vacation? Why was it so much work? How was this supposed to be fun? We leaned hard into our paddles and after about 30 minutes of fighting, we pushed ourselves out of the face of struggle, and into the waiting mouth of the Thornapple River.
The goal wasn’t distance or some dramatic feat, it was merely to head west and put out, by the end of the week, just prior to the east side of the town of Hastings. It was enough to get a sense of remoteness I think our fathers were looking for, all the while, close enough that we were within range of civilization should we need it. So to my surprise, the time along the Thornapple felt much more remote than we probably were.
Once we breached the mouth of the river, the winds calmed and we moved easily with the current. There are moments when you see your father in a different light, a new light that burns away the cover of the every day, and reveals the man you had always admired below. This was one of those. My father guided the canoe easily through the currents, coaching me through when to change sides, when to paddle harder, when to keep us from tipping with the current. It was those moments, when you get the chance to see your father for what he always wanted to be, and not the man he has to be day to day. You can appreciate everything he wanted to be but perhaps has put on hold for his family and responsibilities. Its only in hindsight that I’ve realized this.
At one point we wound up speeding through some small rapids, and Dad kept his cool the entire time. As the river sped faster and faster, it began curving to the right. It became clear, the river waited for no one. It was a classic scenario where, if entering the rapids at the wrong angle, regardless of their diminished strength, it would easily spin the canoe around and possibly overturn her. Dad slowly pulled the nose of the canoe into the arch of the bend, and gently slid the canoe sideways into the rapids. The canoe, never even rocking, blended together with the rapids, and gently drifted on, all in one with the churning water.
We rounded the bend around midday and decided to stop for lunch. This was fascinating to me as, again all this was new. Stopping for lunch? How? Where? Was there a McDonalds along the shore? We drifted into the bank; I remember it was somewhat steep, which was fine, as we weren’t really looking to pull out of the water. We found a small manageable spit and slid the canoes up along the bank. From the larder nested between the side rails of the “Paul(s)” canoe, we pulled bread, turkey, ham, mustard and ketchup, all which seemed a grand feast in this remote environment. It was here I started to realize the benefit of these excursions. We take for granted the availability of such staples in our every day. But when presented in a manner, that by all accounts should seem a struggle, they somehow seem manna from heaven. We weren’t starving, or under any hardship, we had just started, but I had forgotten how something so simple as a turkey sandwich, can be so rewarding after fighting the wind and weather for even a few short hours.
This was the first stop of many, but the first in my realization of what I should expect along the way. The second came quickly at its heels when I complained to my father of a slight stomachache. Nothing serious but clearly nerves, anxiety, and being in unfamiliar territory were working against me. My father’s solution… beer. One of our essential stores was a case of Buckhorn beer my father had in our canoe. Perhaps there was some method to his madness; perhaps it was simply a rite of passage, but his cure for a stomachache? A slug of beer, and by god, I was going to drink it. It was enough that I had a couple sips, and then we were repacked and on our way again. All the while, I was thinking to myself… my dad just gave me beer!?!?
The continued ride with the current was wonderful as I slowly settled into the experience ahead of me. Looking back I realize that has always been one of my problems, that of just leaning back and embracing the experience. I remember at one point just watching the scenery go by and enjoying the calm that the river brought. Dad and I hung back in the second position and let “the Paul’s take the lead. At one point I remember some kind of bird coming up in front of us, and Paul Sr, saying to Paul Jr, “get you’re gun out!” Paul reached back and pulled out the shotgun neatly planted along his right side. As the flock took off (I think they were ducks), Paul took his shot as they pass in front, unfortunately still at a distance too far out from our canoes. In the end, he missed his target(s), but I remember being a bit awe struck at how easily it came to my best friend to grab, load, aim and shoot at what could have been our dinner that night. I had a lot to learn it would seem.
We continued on, the river cold and black, the sky, overcast, gray and cool. There were jokes, discussions, various points of nature, which for some reason every little change in landscape seemed interesting. But there were also moment of quiet. Time to just watch, to listen, and envelope yourself in the surroundings.
As dark approached on the horizon, it was time to find the first campsite of the week. We found an easy sloping bank which would give us plenty of cover under the trees and a high enough shore to get the canoes out of the water and us on dry land. We landed the boats, climbed out and gave ourselves a good stretch. We noticed two things right away, first was an old abandoned foundation that sat down the bank and under the trees. It was difficult to discern what it used to be, but the foundation would make a great fire pit and provide some break from the increasing wind.
The next thing, we were not alone. As the night darkened, and the campsite became bathed in firelight, we heard rustling in the nearby trees. Slowly what emerged was a heard of cows who were moving from their pasture, back toward the home barn. Reminding us we were still close to civilization, there came a pickup from wherever the farm was, and they came by to check on who was hanging out on their river’s edge. After a nice enough exchange, they left, the cows followed, and eventually we moved to our tents and settled down for a crisp night sleep.
The next few days provided more Midwestern fall beauty and new challenges along the river. One I will never forget was the logjam. At the beginning, when commenting about the wooden food crates and all the “extra” equipment, the one that went into the Paul’s canoe which I just couldn’t’ understand was a chainsaw. A chainsaw? We were on a river? What on earth was that for? I learned by midweek exactly what for.
We rounded a bend again and the river began to narrow, at a few points becoming no more than 20-30 feet wide. Our pace slowed to navigate the slower current and shallow depths, and eventually found ourselves at a total roadblock. Clearly in years past the river, the weather, Mother Nature at her best, proved to a handful of tress, it was time for them to come down. And down they were, directly across the river, completely blocking our forward progress.
Right away my young mind goes to “GREAT! Now we have to take everything OUT of the canoes, then carry it down river then…” I can honestly say, teenagers don’t appreciate the experience at hand. Regardless, thanks to Paul Sr’s forethought, the portage around the fallen tress wasn’t necessary. As though some superhero pulling his sword from a hidden sheath, Paul senior reach into the canoe, and pulling it above his head almost in a defiant stance, removed his chainsaw and gave the pullcord a hefty yank! The saw fired right up and soon he was climbing the morass of logs, sawing through them with ease, clearing our path to freedom.
There was a level of elation at the experience, watching the two dads, beat back nature with a defiant “stick”. Thinking us now superior, we reloaded the tools, and began to paddle under the remaining logs to the other side. But no, Mother Nature wasn’t done with me yet. The clearing we had made was just enough to slide the canoe and all the gear and passengers underneath. However in my exuberance, I failed to realize, that the wooden supply box was right behind me, so when the time came to lean back and glide under the logs, my head locked back against the supply crate, and my forehead smacking directly into the logs I so arrogantly attempted to avoid. I remember having a small goose egg on my forehead for the remainder of the trip, just to remind myself that we (or I) was in no way king of this river.
The river eased us on for the remainder of the week. Our last night was spent on a small peninsula of land that jutted into the right side of the river. A comforting dinner, and an evening helping Paul Jr clean the dishes. That meant heating the solidified grease in the cast-iron frying pan, and pouring it over the fire to get rid of it. As boys will be boys, it clearly was a reason to let two young boys play with fire.
The fathers just sat back and watched and let Paul and I enjoy our selves. We spent our evening huddled next to the fire, discussing our most recent D&D adventure, while the men drank beer and talked about the things Fathers talk about.
As I prepare for my next adventure, heading to the UK in the fall, I want to remember that time on the river and what it gave me. And to not take for granted the experience at hand.