Sometimes it all comes crashing down on you at once. The bills are stacking up. You cross off an item on your “to do” list only to add two or three more tasks that you need to do. The walls seem to close in around you, and life seems more like a long list of chores instead of a celebration. I’m sure most of us feel that way from time to time. I am no exception.
Just a few days ago, it all hit me – the bills, the chores, the never–ending “to do” list, everything. It was just too much. I needed outside. I needed to be on a river. And I needed a canoe. My wife felt the same. She too had been suffering from the same stresses of life.
We could have given in to our default defense mechanism – television. We could have disappeared into the life of Eric, Donna, Hyde, Jackie, Kelso, and Fes and their comedic hijinks on “That ‘70s Show.” We could have “vegged out,” ate a big bowl of popcorn or chips, and left this world behind for a while, but that type of escape only provides temporary relief. In fact, I think it probably makes matters worse. Instead of temporarily easing our stresses by invoking our Couchus tuberosum ancestry, we decided that paddling was a much better source of relief.
For years we’d wanted to paddle a short stretch of the Shenandoah River near our home in Harpers Ferry– a section of mostly flat water accessible from the Shannondale Springs Wildlife Management Area. We live within minutes of the WMA and have hiked and hunted the area many times but had never paddled this stretch of the Shenandoah. Earlier in the week, before several days of rainfall, we had crossed the river over a bridge just downstream and the water looked beautiful – perfect for a short paddling break from the bills and chores. We decided to give it a go, and within minutes, we were dressed for aquatic bliss and loading the 86–pound Mad River Canoe onto the Honda. The three–minute drive was filled with debates about how much river we’d travel, how long we had available before we needed to return home, and which baits we were going to use for fishing. For Misti, a floating Rapala minnow that sinks when you crank it; for turtle, an orange jighead with a synthetic white grub; and for me, a Texas–rigged artificial worm – my top pick for bronzebacks.
We pulled into the parking lot, climbed out of the Honda, and walked to the boat ramp. “I don’t know. It’s pretty muddy.”
“Yeah. It’s a little high too.” Misti looked worried.
“I think we can paddle around a bit, but we’re not gonna have much luck fishing.”
She gave me “the look” – you probably know the look I’m talking about, it’s a cross between “you’re crazy,” “did I really marry this person?,” and “I think we’re going to drown.” Even so, I started undoing the ratchet straps that secured the Mad River to the top of the Honda. We carried the canoe and gear to the boat ramp and eased the bow into the water.
Trying to keep Misti and Turtle out of the mud, I said, “OK, baby. Climb in, and I’ll slide it further into the water.” She reluctantly complied as she took turns watching her steps into the canoe and looking towards the churning brown water. I slid the canoe a bit further forward, helped Turtle climb in, and eased the canoe completely onto the river’s muddy surface. I stepped into the stern of the vessel and assumed my seat as captain of the S.S. Leave–Your–Stresses–Behind.
Of course, I did recognize the potential hazards of paddling in such muddy water as well as water higher than its usual levels. High and muddy water provides countless opportunities to capsize, and I didn’t want to force us into a dangerous situation. I paddled slowly, easing the canoe along the edge of the river near the bank. I couldn’t see the bottom of the shallow river and had no idea where the next big rock would lie. Had we been in the swifter center of the river, we could have pinned on one of those rocks, turned sideways, and tipped from the pressure of the fast–moving water. Instead, we paddled slowly, both of us observing the beauty of the river while also intently studying the water’s surface.
We paddled from the boat ramp downriver several hundred yards past rock outcroppings, past a nice privately–owned camp, and then to my hidden agenda for the trip. Just downriver of the WMA and the private camp is an 8–acre parcel of land for sale. Based upon my estimates, it would be a decent candidate for a campground and canoe livery operation. We paddled along the stretch of available land while I made notes of possible campsites and locations for a bathhouse, a storage building for the canoes, and a front office. None of my observations really mattered though – I couldn’t afford to purchase the land even if I sold my nonessential organs on the black market, but a man can dream, can’t he?
On the way back upriver, we paddled hard against the current. It wasn’t overly difficult but did provide a level of physical effort we hadn’t needed when drifting downstream. We watched as a river crane flapped its wings across the valley and rested itself on a large rock just above the surface of the water. We watched the countless little black insects drift past our canoe as they floated towards the mighty Potomac, and we watched the surface of the water constantly, looking for any indication of an unusual current or boulders that could jeopardize our paddling pleasure. We thought of the possibility of a capsize in the muddy water. We thought of how long until the water would recede. But we didn’t think of the bills or the chores awaiting our return home. They were still there. We still had to deal with our responsibilities. But after a short paddle, we knew that no matter how bad it can get, canoeing makes everything better!