By T.J. Coongate
“What’s that old boat in the loft of the barn?” I asked Uncle Arnold as he fried brook trout in a big cast iron frying pan. Me and Joe were seated in the kitchen of my Uncle Arnold’s old farmhouse waiting patiently for the first trout fry of the season. We had caught the limit of brookies in Chowder Pond after school and brought them to Uncle Arnold. He was the finest fish cook in the family, as well as a connoisseur of well-prepared brook trout.
“Ain’t a boat.” He turned the fish carefully with a fork. “That’s my ol’ canoe. White Guide’s Model. Ain’t seen water since…” he paused to stare at the ceiling. “…think it was nineteen an’ forty-three. Yep, that was the spring me an’ Gabe Frenzy trapped them spring muskrats in to Fiddlehead Bogan. Canoe’s been hangin’ in the loft of the barn ever since.” He began scooping steaming trout into our plates.
I stared across the table at Joe. From the look of animation on his thin face, I knew his thoughts were rambling in the same groove as my own.
“Say, Uncle Arnold,” I said casually, “is there any chance me and Joe could use that old canoe? You know, to fish the river and go to camp and stuff?”
Uncle Arnold paused with his fork in mid-air. It took him a little time to get his thoughts around a new concept. He considered for a minute, then slid another fat trout onto my plate.
“Don’t see why not. But that ol’ canoe’s been stored so long, I ‘spect the canvas has come loose in places an’ the shellac is cracked an’ dried. Still, I got me some white lead in the barn an’ plenty of shellac. You boys wanna spend the elbow grease, I guess you kin git her afloat agin’. Jist don’t go drowndin’ yerselves. I don’t want yer folks comin’ back on me.
After nearly killing ourselves getting the old canoe down out of the loft, me and Joe spent a week off and on working on the old craft. Under Uncle Joe’s watchful eye we filled cracks with white lead, chipped and sanded off dried shellac, and painted on a new coat. Rips in the faded canvas we carefully patched and shellacked over. Finally, on a bright, sunny Saturday afternoon we were ready for a trial run.
“Strap them paddles an’ life vest to the thwarts,” Uncle Arnold fretted over last minute advice. “Git her upside-down on yer shoulders an’ she’ll carry real easy. Jist want yer to remember one thing.” He sat down on an old caned chair in the doorway of the barn and began packing his pipe.
This here’s a 20-foot White. Ain’t like a Old Town, what’s pretty flat bottom an’ made fer luggin’ cargo. A White won’t carry as much weight, but she’s made fer runnin’ whitewater. Handles like a dream. On’y thing is, she’s tippy. Uncommon tippy. Best make sure you step in the center when boardin’ an’ getting’ out. An’ don’t go runnin’ the bow up on a slopin’ bank. She’ll roll when you try ta git out. Other’n that, she’s safe as houses.”
Our trek through the middle of Mooseleuk village toward the landing on the Little Salt Pork River caused somewhat of a stir. Teenagers showed up all along the route to admire the canoe and ask for rides. Me and Joe were more than happy to oblige. The old canoe was the best thing that had happened to either of us that spring and showing off to our peers made it just that much better.
As we gingerly launched the canoe into the river a small crowd gathered. The canoe floated high in the somewhat swollen waters of the river. Spring runoff was almost ended but the water was still cold and a little high.
We climbed carefully into the canoe, myself in the bow and Joe in the stern. As Uncle Arnold had warned, the craft was tippy, but as long as we were careful, there seemed to be no danger. And it did handle like a dream. We shot across the river and paddled along the opposite shore for a few minutes before crossing diagonally back into the landing.
Among the clamoring boys wanting rides I spotted an unwelcome addition. Port Sidemeat stood a little apart, eyeing the canoe with an avaricious, porcine gaze. As we slid to shore, he sauntered down the bank, the rolls of fat under his sweater jiggling with the effort.
“Not a bad canoe, for an old junk,” he smirked. “Wanna sell it?”
“Ain’t ours ta sell,” Joe said shortly.
“Belongs to my Uncle Arnold,” I added. “He’s just letting us use it.”
As we took the first two passengers out away from shore, I was relieved to see Port waddle off toward town. For the next two hours we were kept busy ferrying excited teenagers around the stretch of river that flowed through town.
Trouble on Shore
Then, as we paddled back to the landing with our last two passengers, I saw trouble standing on the shore, waiting for us. Port Sidemeat had returned and with him were his two pals, Geese Ladder and Dabble Spleen. Piled on the bank beside them were boxes and sleeping bags.
“Our turn,” Port smiled unpleasantly as our last two riders glanced at the newcomers nervously, then disappeared toward Main Street.
“Sorry, we’re all done for today,” I smiled nervously.
Port’s face darkened. “You’re all done when I say you’re all done!” He reached out and grabbed the gunnel of the canoe. I watched Joe raise his paddle and gaze longingly at Port’s knuckles, but as Geese and Dab leaned over the canoe, he thought better of it. All three were hefty 200 pounders and while Joe loved a fight, the odds were just too great.
“We been wanting to go up and spend the night at my cousin Cheater’s camp up river. But Halter Brook is so swole up with runoff, we can’t git across to reach the camp. So you two are gonna paddle us to the camp instead.”
“But that’s four miles upstream,” I cried. “And besides, we can’t carry you and all that food and dunnage you got with you. The canoe’s not big enough!”
“You jist git us up there,” Port grated as he swung the canoe broadside to the bank. “Then you kin come back down and bring up our wangan.”
It seemed there was little we could do. I kind of hoped the three porkers would upset the canoe getting in. I’d have swapped a dunking in the icy water just to foil their plans. But they climbed in gingerly and settled themselves on the bottom of the canoe.
The added weight sank the old canoe down to about four inches of freeboard, but with the calm water, it was more than enough clearance. Resignedly, me and Joe picked up our paddles and began the long trip upstream against the current, straining to move the heavily loaded canoe.
The three chums enjoyed the trip immensely. As me and Joe paddled and sweated, Port pointed out the rush of water coming from the mouth of Halter Brook as we passed.
“See how high the brook is? No wonder we couldn’t git across. Be three, four days, maybe a week before it’s down low enough to ford.” Joe eyed the swollen stream speculatively but said nothing.
Finally, we arrived at the camp, a small log structure set on a bank above high water. A tiny dock stuck out into the river and after we slid in alongside, Geese and Dab climbed out onto the platform.
“Aren’t you getting out?” I asked Port.
“On no,” he leaned back against the center thwart and crossed his arms comfortably. “You don’t think we were gonna trust you two to bring up our supplies, do ya? I’m ridin’ right back down with ya, to make sure you don’t forget to come back.”
I flushed in exasperation but Joe just sat mutely in the stern.
“We’ll git the camp swept out an’ the fire built up, Port,” Geese said with a smirk. “You enjoy yer ride, now.”
The trip back downstream with the current behind us was much easier. Joe maintained his silence but I was sure the gears were turning in his head. I thought I knew what his plan would be and prepared to join in overpowering Port when we reached the landing.
But to my surprise, Joe made no move other than to start loading the boxes of food and the sleeping bags into the canoe.
“What are you doing?” I hissed as Port walked up the bank for another load. “We can take him!”
Let’s just git this done,” Joe replied noncommittally as he stored yet another box of provisions. Port came back down the bank and Joe raised his voice slightly. “We’ll get this stuff up there for these guys and then we kin be done with ‘um.”
“Smart thinkin’,” Port agreed menacingly. “Now let’s shove off.”
As we struggled once again slowly upstream, Joe eyed the pile of supplies. “Looks like you boys plan to live high on the hog,” he commented.
“Yep,” Port replied as he relaxed against a box of bacon and ham shoulders. “We always eat good, wherever we go.”
Finally we passed the mouth of Halter Brook again. Joe eased the canoe a little more toward shore. With the tree-lined bank a dozen yards away he suddenly barked at Port.
“Say, Sidemeat, sit easy there! Don’t be shiftin’ around!”
“What?” Port came out of a doze. “I ain’t movin’ atall!”
“Stay steady there! Yer rockin’ the canoe! We tol’ yer she was tippy!” Indeed, the canoe was rolling ominously from side to side.
“I’m not doin’ nothin’!” Port shouted nervously. “It ain’t me! Hold this thing steady!”
The canoe pitched again violently. I looked over my shoulder in consternation to see Joe lean far out to the left, drop his paddle and pinch his nose shut. Instantly, the canoe capsized.
I came sputtering to the surface to see Port Sidemeat churning wildly toward the shore.
Jerking around I spotted the overturned canoe a few yards away and swam toward it. Joe was already holding onto the side.
“Git to the other gunnel,” Joe said quietly. “Remember how we learnt to right a canoe at scout camp?” With a little effort, we had the craft right side up again. I held it steady while Joe clambered aboard. Then he leaned out over the left gunnel while I climbed in from the right. I got busy with the bailing bucket that was tied to my seat as Joe loosened the lashings on the spare paddle.
“You git in here!” I swung around to see Port hopping up and down on the bank. “Git in here an’ pick me up! I’ll ketch my death of cold an’ we still gotta pick up all them supplies!”
Joe turned and gazed downstream where boxes and parcels dotted the surface of the water. He turned back toward Port with a slow smile spreading across his narrow features.
“Was I you, Port, I’d head on up to camp an’ git dried off. Can’t be more’n a half mile. Don’t you worry, we’ll pick up them supplies for yer. They’ll be waiting’ back at town for ya. At least, what we don’t use will be.”
“Why you bleeps! You rotten bleeps!” Port was slowly turning purple, although whether it was from anger or from the cold, I couldn’t be sure. I’ll head right down the shore! I’ll be there at the landin’ waitin for ya!”
“Yore fergittin’, Port,” Joe called as he turned the canoe downstream and began to paddle. “Yore above the mouth o’ Halter Brook. Don’t expect you boys will be crossin’ that any time soon!”
Port’s mouth dropped open in wild dismay. “But we’ll starve! We got nothin’ ta eat at camp but a little flour an’ rice! We’ll perish!”
“Looks o’ the three o’ you, it’ll take a lot more’n a week on light rations to slim yer down much. In the mean time, enjoy yer time at camp!”
Port’s high-pitched shouting diminished as we rounded a bend. I turned and eyed Joe sourly. “The least you could have done was warn me you were going to tip over the canoe! I’m apt to freeze to death before we get to town.”
“Me? Tip over a canoe?” Joe asked innocently. “Never happen. It was that no-count Port. You heard me hollerin’ at him. Joe turned the canoe slightly to the right.
“Get that floatin’ box of eggs. Careful when you lean out,” he smiled as I continued to scowl. “After all, you know how tippy this ol’ canoe is.”
T.J. Coongate is an active outdoorsman who writes under a pen name. It is rumored that he lives in the Millinocket area.
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