In 1975, my Granny bought a seventeen foot aluminum Grumman canoe from an outdoors store in Lafayette, Louisiana called Pack & Paddle. The store was new then; it had just opened a year prior, in 1974. The owners lived in the house out back and the store sat on what used to be their front lawn. I heard they had built the two-story structure entirely out of scrap wood accumulated over several years.
The canoe is a big hunk of metal and rivets, made by Grumman, a company that makes airplanes. And indeed, slapping the side of it does sound like slapping the side of my airplane during preflight, a habit that is more sentimental than practical.
She’s big and wide and comin’ through. She’s 80 pounds of aluminum. She had been sitting in a chicken coop at my uncle’s house in Missouri for the last twenty years, but she is just as solid as when she carried my dad and uncles through the basin over thirty years ago.
The canoe was for the boys, one of them my dad, eleven years old at the time and the youngest of seven. The boat was bought with hopes of helping the young teens cope with the loss of their father, who had just passed away. The three youngest boys took the boat out into the Atchafalaya basin, explored and paddled it around with the exuberance and fearlessness of youth. They fished, swam, and camped on old oil platforms. The plan worked; my dad, looking at the canoe now lashed to the trailer, speaks of the time fondly. The Atchafalaya Basin has a presence about it that is calming, borderline magical. Nature, especially water, helps me with my grief, and it helped him too.
Grandpa was in the military almost his entire life. He enlisted as a young teenager and served in WWII and the Korean War, working on famous ships such as the USS Antietam, The Helm, Valley Forge, and The Enterprise. He survived through it all, even Pearl Harbor, but later died of cancer associated with working with radars on the ships.
My Granny’s name was Edna. They called her The Big E, which is the colloquial name for The Enterprise, one of the famous aircraft carriers Grandpa was on. She was dying also of cancer when I was born, so they gave me a similar name, after her.
And so, also after her, I name the canoe “Edna,” also known as “The Big E.”
Dad said Granny would have pursed her lips, but secretly liked it.
I don’t have a background in rowing. I have probably a total of less than 24 hours logged behind oars. I’ve learned enough to move and maneuver and fall in love with it. I have 2100 miles to figure out everything else. If I can’t figure it out in 2100 miles, I’m not figuring it out.
That being said, with all this high water I can’t help but feel a little apprehensive about being on that young river in Itasca Minnesota, in something I have little experience in, looking backwards. But then I think about me two years ago, heading down a rushing little river in Three Forks Montana, in a skinny kayak I had little experience in, looking backwards at the past.
The whole rowing concept was planted like a seed in my head last summer in 2018 when I was paddling with a group of maybe thirty or forty long-distance expeditioners in a rendezvous. We had all gathered somehow, from all parts of the country and in a couple of cases the world, to honor one of our own and float a section of the river for a few days. It wasn’t just Missouri River paddlers; people who had done other rivers, coastlines, circumnavigations of things, cross continent expeditions…the human-powered miles covered by this group probably wrapped around the globe several times. I knew a lot of them personally but there were people there I had only heard of, or never met. But we all had one thing in common: we had gone far and long and spent a lot of time alone in the sun and the weather. We had all convened with the water in our own way. I was honored to be considered a member of this group of truly unique people.
I paddled a perfectly sized single person Wenonah canoe with rudders loaned to me by the man we originally planned the float trip in honor of. Robin was still alive, but we joked that this whole thing felt like a memorial or something. In his life, he had graciously offered to let me take this canoe down the Mississippi, and at the time it was the boat I was planning on taking the next year.
The float trip was great. Some paddled, some floated. Sometimes we linked up in big clods of ten or fifteen boats, rotating aimlessly down the current like ants after a storm. But we all ended up around the same campfire every night, telling and listening to the stories on stories of all the places we have been and the things we’ve done.
It can be difficult, after travelling like we have, to find other people to talk to about the trips. Most people, though interested and with good intentions, can just end up asking a lot of questions you’ve heard every other person ask. I’m never rude; I support inquiry and questions, but conversations can so quickly turn into interrogations that I end up not really volunteering the information unless it comes up. Maybe that’s why we write books about this stuff sometimes.
I hold my Missouri River expedition close to my heart. It’s a defining time in my life. All of us consider our trips as important times in our lives, times where we were pushed to the extremes and learned something about ourselves we never could have learned by being comfortable. Being able to talk about it with others who can put the experience in context is heartening.
I speak from experience, but not as much as some people. There are people who have gone further and longer than I ever have. There were definitely people within the group who had gone further than me. We had loopers, people who had looped around the eastern portion of the United States via waterways. It was one of the loopers who handed me the rowing seed. I take the blame though for planting it.
I had never seen anybody row before. I was entranced by the undulating movement, captivated by the way the rower’s body and oars were all part of the same smooth, continuous gliding motion. Like breathing, but better.
I asked the rower about it, probably asked the questions everyone askes, which he politely answered, then offered to let me have a go.
I was terrible. I initially sat down facing the wrong way, but even after I got everything set up properly, everything was backwards in my head. I couldn’t’ understand how it worked, and felt hopelessly unwieldy. The current started pulling me away and I barely made it back to the bank. But my failure just made me want more.
The rowing made sense from a lot of different angles. From one angle, there’s no pain.
“No pain in rowing land.” The rower told me. I doubt there’s no pain, but there is certainly less than conventional paddling. At 24 years old, that shouldn’t be a huge factor for me, but it is. I have a kink in my back underneath my right shoulder blade where I believe I pulled a muscle when I flipped the kayak two years ago on big waves on Fort Peck Lake. Ever since then, my back has been tight in that spot, and when I paddle, it begins to ache after only a few hours. I stretch it regularly, but it has continued to bother me for years now. Honestly, I don’t know if I could do another expedition paddling conventionally unless I get that figured out.
Secondly, rowing is much more efficient. Conventional paddling, if you’re doing it right, relies mostly on the back and some on the abs and the arms to make one small stroke on one side. Rowing, however, utilizes the entire body, with emphasis on the largest muscles in your legs to power two blades that are situated at least six feet away from the vessel. Not only is the motion on the body more efficient, but the fact that the blades are so far away from the boat provides extra power through leverage. For these reasons, rowing is a popular option for women, especially small or thin women.
The third and perhaps most driving reason behind my decision to take oars is that I fell in love with it. Even though I have no prior experience or even exposure, one good pull and I was hooked. It was like stretching after waking up from a coma. Like diving into the water after spending life wading in the shallows.
Realizing my interest despite my inexperience, the rower and I kept in contact. Though he wasn’t the only person who had the knowledge to help me, he was the only person I knew. I had no idea how to get my hands on a rig or even oars. He guided me on how and what to get, and two months before I was planning to put in at the headwaters, I had a pair of oars on Edna.
The rowing rig was a dream conceived by the Boy Scouts of America, who wanted to design something that would convert any standard sized canoe into a rowboat. It’s a great design, simple but with a sliding seat. Hopefully it has the sturdiness to take me down the largest river in North America. I have some tools and spare parts, but the faith and dogged determination I packed with them are just as important in keeping the rig operative.
The oars are gorgeous. Nine feet long and carbon fiber, with hatchet shaped blades. Paired with the aluminum Grumman, the whole ensemble looks pretty badass.
I brought a single bladed paddle with me for the first bit of the river when she is too narrow to row, but for the most part I’ll be with the oars, learning as I go and looking backwards the whole way.
I’ll be staring at the past while heading into the future. There’s a metaphor here somewhere.