-The Voice before the Void
“In a Canoe”
from The Great Divide
Windham Wyndham-Quin, 4th Earl of Dunraven and Mount-Earl
Among all the modes of progression hitherto invented by restless man, there is not one that can compare in respect of comfort and luxury with travelling in a birch-bark canoe. It is the poetry of progression. Along the bottom of the boat are laid blankets and bedding; a sort of wicker-work screen is sloped against the middle thwart, affording a delicious support to the back; and indolently, in your shirt sleeves if the day be warm, or well covered with a blanket if it is chilly, you sit or lie on this most luxurious of couches, and are propelled at a rapid rate over the smooth surface of a lake or down the swift current of some stream. If you want exercise, you can take a paddle yourself. If you prefer to be inactive, you can lie still and placidly survey the scenery, rising occasionally to have a shot at a wild duck; at intervals reading, smoking, and sleeping. Sleep, indeed, you will enjoy most luxuriously, for the rapid bounding motion of the canoe as it leaps forward at every impulse of the crew, the sharp quick beat of the paddles on the water, and the roll of their shafts against the gunwale, with the continuous hiss and ripple of the stream cleft by the curving prow, combine to make a most soothing soporific.
Dreamily you lie side by side—you and your friend—lazily gazing at the pine-covered shores and wooded islands of some unknown lake, the open book unheeded on your knee; the half-smoked pipe drops into your lap; your head sinks gently back; and you wander into dreamland, to awake presently and find yourself sweeping round the curve of some majestic river, whose shores are blazing with the rich crimson, brown, and gold of the maple and other hardwood trees in their autumn dress.
Presently the current quickens. The best man shifts his place from the stern to the bow, and stands ready with his long-handled paddle to twist the frail boat out of reach of hidden rocks. The men’s faces glow with excitement. Quicker and quicker flows the stream, breaking into little rapids, foaming round rocks, and rising in tumbling waves over the shallows. At a word from the bowman the crew redouble their efforts, the paddle shafts crash against the gunwale, the spray flies beneath the bending blades. The canoe shakes and quivers through all its fibres, leaping bodily at every stroke.
Before you is a seething mass of foam, its whiteness broken by horrid black rocks, one touch against whose jagged sides would rip the canoe into tatters and hurl you into eternity. Your ears are full of the roar of waters; waves leap up in all directions, as the river, maddened at obstruction, hurls itself through some narrow gorge. The bowman stands erect to take one look in silence, noting in that critical instant the line of deepest water; then bending to his work, with sharp, short words of command to the steersman, he directs the boat. The canoe seems to pitch headlong into space. Whack! comes a great wave over the bow; crash! comes another over the side. The bowman, his figure stooped, and his knees planted firmly against the sides, stands, with paddle poised in both hands, screaming to the crew to paddle hard; and the crew cheer and shout with excitement in return. You, too, get wild, and feel inclined to yell defiance to the roaring, hissing flood that madly dashes you from side to side. After the first plunge you are in a bewildering whirl of waters. The shore seems to fly past you. Crash! You are right on that rock, and (I don’t care who you are) you will feel your heart jump into your mouth, and you will catch the side with a grip that leaves a mark on your fingers afterwards. No! With a shriek of command to the steersman, and a plunge of his paddle, the bowman wrenches the canoe out of its course. Another stroke or two, another plunge forward, and with a loud exulting yell from the bowman, who flourishes his paddle round his head, you pitch headlong down the final leap, and with a grunt of relief from the straining crew glide rapidly into still water.