Monday, November 14, 2011

My First Canoe

Sage and his younger brother on Town Creek, late 1970s

This is the first of a planned multi-part series on how I got into canoeing and kayaking.

Buck and Nancy were the youth group advisor at church during my Senior High years.  They were both teachers.  Buck, who’d done a stint with the Marine Corps as an officer in Vietnam, taught high school biology and Nancy taught in an elementary school.  They were young and full of energy.  We had a small youth program, a dozen or so students, but it was a tight knit group.  We spent a weekend painting the youth room.  The walls were blocked and we painted each block by hand: green, blue or yellow, in diagonal strips that ran up the walls.  Then we went back and outline each block, painting the mortar black.  When we were done, it was very psychedelic and very 70s!  We met in that room every Sunday evening and once a year we’d take a weekend trip to Camp Kirkwood, which was always highlighted by a day-long canoe trip on the Black River. 

The water was high and fast that early spring day in 1973.  Or maybe it was late winter as the trees were still bare. Whenever we reached a bend in the river, water continue to flow straight, cutting through the swampy side of the river, making it difficult to navigate our canoes as the water pushed you out of the main channel.  We struggled and paddled hard, especially at the bends and in the shoots through blow downs, where the force of water threatened to push us into trees that had fallen into the river.  Buck and Nancy paddled up and down the line of canoes, offering suggestions and encouragement, trying to keep everyone together and dry.  Most of the canoes had two paddlers, but there was one boat with three people.  Billy, who always marched to his own drum and never worried about what others said about him, sat in the middle as Marge and Rosa paddled from the bow and stern.  At one point, Buck was yelling for everyone to stop and Billy, thinking he would be helpful, reached up and grabbed a branch of a tree to hold the boat.  His choice of branches wasn’t the best as it was rotted and a fell across the canoe.  Luckily, they didn’t capsize.  Seeing this large branch straddle the canoe, like out-riggers, gave us all a laugh.  At lunch, on a high bluff overlooking a bend in the river, clouds began to come in and the temperature cooled.  Buck hurried us on, saying we might be getting some rain.  But it never did rain that day and by mid-afternoon, we were pulling our canoes out and loading them on the trailer for the trip back to Camp Kirkwood.

This was my first river canoe trip.  I’d paddled a canoe on a lake at scout camp, but there was something about the river where every bend held new possibilities of seeing wildlife.  The Black River gets its name from the dark water that’s stained by the tannin acid from the cypress and juniper that grow in the swamps around the river.  Although I didn’t know it at the time, we’d canoed through swamps that contained some of the oldest trees in the Eastern United States.  One tree there is over 1700 years old.  But that didn’t matter, I was hooked. Not long after this trip, I began working at Wilson’s Supermarket and immediately started looking at canoes and saving some money.   My dad suggested that before buying a new canoe I put an ad in the classified section of the Star News.  It was a simple advertisement, “Wanted: A Canoe” and included our phone number.  A few days later, while I was at school, a man from Southport called and left me a message.  I called him back and in a day or two, my father drove me over to look at his Grumman Canoe.  The man was moving and needed to sell it and offered it to me for $60.  At this time, a new would have cost me nearly $400.  I brought it and we tied it to the top of my father’s car and drove home, stopping along the way to buy paddles and life jackets.  Over the next ten years, I got more than my money’s worth out of the canoe.  That $60 investment was the best I’ve ever made as it provided me over a decade of explorations all over North Carolina, and into Tennessee and Virginia.  But mostly I used it to paddle the black water swamps of Eastern North Carolina.   

I was heartbroken in 1985, when I came home from the National Jamboree of the Boy Scouts of America to discover that during my absence, someone had stolen my canoe.  However, the “replacement cost rider” on my insurance (partly due to a decade of high inflation) paid me significantly more than what I’d originally paid for the canoe and I upgraded to a Mad River ABS boat. 


  1. Thank Heaven for insurance!! I don't blame you for being heartbroken, though. That must have been something like losing your first car. I have only been in a canoe 2-3 times in my life, but I enjoyed it.

  2. Thanks goodness it was covered, but I know you still think of it as being that special first one! What an experience though, and thanks for the journey of it thus far...I just can't imagine how a tree over 1700 years old didn't mean a thing to you then...ha ha...what a wonderful find! You were very lucky to have done this...I remember a few families where the kids weren't so lucky!

  3. Yep, thank goodness for's awful someone stole your canoe. I haven't been too often, but I do love it when I get the chance to get in a canoe :)

  4. Sounds like the beginning of a fine love affair with the great outdoors. It's a shame your canoe was stolen but it seems like things worked out in the end.

  5. ugh on someone stealing your canoe...i first canoed on at youth camp...then a white water trip...then kayaked...somewhere along the way wrapped a canoe around a rock...

  6. That's a wonderful story....(well...not the stolen canoe part), but what a bunch of wonderful memories!

  7. Somedays I think I was born in a canoe as I've been canoeing as long as I can remember. My parents however in form me that I was probably seven when we first went down a whitewater river.

    I look forward to your series. I built my first canoe out of woodstrips and fiberglass. Unfortunately it met an untimely end too fifteen years ago when a wind caught it while the garage was being cleaned and blew it down a gravel driveway about an 1/8th mile. What was left wasn't worth salvaging. It stuck with me because my second and third boats were kayaks though as you may recall from old blog posts, the third one was also made from wood strips and fiberglass.

  8. Intersting how we can get so attached to objects like this, a canoe, a car. Very human, I guess

  9. Judy, Canoeing is a great way to be in nature and you see more animals than you do walking

    Karen, I only found out recently there was a cypress there that old--actually, at 16, I'm not sure I had even heard the term "old growth" or "virgin forest." THe only thing about virginity I knew about was... let's not go there!

    Caty, thanks for stopping by, always good to have another Tar Heel around here.

    Hilary, that's a good description of me, a lifelong love affair with wilderness

    Brain, never wrapped a canoe around a rock, but I've seen it done!

    Dawn, it is wonderful!

    Ed, it's neat that you were canoeing that young! My daughter was in a boat on a river at 5 (she backcountry skied with me in the Utah mountains at 10 months).

    Charles, my next canoe served me well, but there is always that first love!

  10. Great story! I'll look forward to reading more.

  11. How do you stop them spinning ike a top is a breath of wind.

  12. Sage: What a cool story! Ten years with a $60 investment. I like those numbers!! And what great exercise. A fun story!!!

  13. That canoe was a treasure. I can't believe someone would steal like that. I enjoyed reading this post - what adventures you have had!

  14. I'm totally psyched for this series. Bring it on, with lots of photos. I will be an insufferable commenter.


  15. Tim, Thanks!

    Roaring 40s, maybe I should do a post on the "J stroke"

    Michael, yeah, I haven't had very many investments like this!

    Lynn, I've also had a kayak stolen!

    Randall, I'll be back with another one soon.

  16. I still remember my first canoe trip, too. Of course that was only a couple years ago. The good news is, I've been a couple of times since then.

    Did you ever sit in back and use your paddle to sling water on the person in front, or is that just me?

  17. Canoes look so adventurous, but once I'm inside of them they make me feel so uneasy. I'll leave it to big boys like you