Each year when August rolls around I am reminded of a misadventure which occurred during this month 47 years ago. It was my first (and only) canoe trip.
I was the sports editor at the Webster City Daily Freeman-Journal at the time. A co-worker, Jon Leu, was an avid canoeist and spoke often of the joy of paddling down the Boone River south of Webster City. He encouraged me to accompany him on such a trip.
Although the lower portion of the Boone is a beautiful stretch of river, I felt no proclivity to canoe on it. Jon is a good guy, however, and he had patiently taught me a great deal about photography. I finally agreed to go canoeing on the Boone.
With the long hours of covering the county fair behind us, we took off the afternoon of a hot, humid August day. We planned to canoe several miles downstream to Bells Mill County Park.
Just a few yards down the river, we discovered a problem. I’m tall and heavy and Jon isn’t. When I was in the back of the canoe, Jon rode high in the front and when I was in the front, Jon rode high in the back.
This problem quickly took a back seat to another. It had been a relatively dry summer and the river was shallow. We hadn’t gone far when the bottom of the canoe scraped the river bed. We got out and walked the vessel through the shallow water.
We walked a ways, floated a while, and walked again. At one point, back in the canoe, Jon warned me to prepare for some fast water ahead. As we entered the rippling water Jon shouted back paddling instructions: “Right... now left... now right again...” I got confused and the next thing I knew the canoe tipped us into the river.
Intending to do a photo feature on the trip, I had brought along a camera. My first concern — after avoiding drowning — was to keep my camera dry. Jon, on the other hand, had a different concern. “Darn it,” he moaned, “you got my cigarettes wet!”
Before we could get into an argument over the value of his weeds versus my camera, we saw the paddles floating away. In a spontaneous burst of teamwork, he ran after the paddles while I held onto the canoe.
Soon we were back in the canoe again, soaking wet, gliding down the quiet river past sheer limestone cliffs, thick timber and lush meadows. The intense August sun began to dry us out.
We didn’t tip the canoe again, but we did have to get out and walk the vessel frequently. In fact, we must have walked it at least half of the journey.
At the beginning I assumed we could make this trip — probably five or six miles as the crow flies — in a couple of hours or less. I had not taken into consideration, however, how much (unlike a crow flies) the river meanders. And I had not anticipated having to walk as much as we did. Come to think of it, I had not anticipated walking at all.
After about four hours, my skin was red and burning, my back and legs were aching and I was getting hungry. Jon was tougher than I and didn’t seem to appreciate my whining. Finally, some five hours after we began, we saw Bells Mill Park. What a beautiful sight!
In spite of incredible exhaustion, I slept poorly that night. Between sunburn and leg cramps I awoke frequently.
The next January my family moved to Sioux City. Jon and his wife left town a few years later.
Some years later I was asked to give a presentation at a newspaper industry meeting in Omaha. Though I hadn’t seen Jon in at least 15 years, I knew he was working at the Daily Nonpareil in Council Bluffs so on my way home that afternoon I stopped by his office. The receptionist directed me to a second-floor break room where, she said, I would find him.
I followed her instructions and, sure enough, there was Jon — a little older, of course, but otherwise little changed since the last time I had seen him. I greeted him.
Jon looked up at me with his trademark grin.
“Hey, ya big dummy,” he said wryly, “been canoeing lately?”
I guess Jon hadn’t forgotten that fateful canoe trip either.
Arvid Huisman began writing Country Roads 32 years ago, and today the column appears in several Iowa newspapers. He can be contacted at email@example.com.