Gunneling

Lake-sunset-2011

The two teenage boys dragged the faded green Old Town canoe through lily pads, luxurious with white and yellow flowers, until the canoe floated off the sandbar. This particular canoe, a descendent of the 19th century Old Town Maine heritage, had weathered numerous encounters with rocky shorelines, evidenced by bruised wooden gunnels and patches of peeling paint. Old Town lore recounted a ghost who haunted the factory. At night, it would wind its way through tables stacked with wood and canvas that would eventually be converted into prestigious canoes, but on this day at Brant Lake only two young people, bound for adventure, paddled into the midst of the lake.

Offshore, the canoeist in the bow, a slender boy with flaming red hair, turned around and crouched on the web seat, his paddle lying on the ash ribs at the bottom of the boat. Then, tentatively raising himself into a half stand,and violating a primary rule, “Never stand in a canoe,” he extended one foot onto the gunnel and then a second, hoping to balance himself. His partner in the stern gently back paddled to hold the canoe steady, but a wave from a Ski Nautique motor boat on the far side of the lake had reached the canoe, rocking the boat from side to side. Grimacing, the red head lost his balance and plunged into the cold water of the lake on this mid-June day. Slowly he pulled himself over the side and rested on his seat, but only for a moment. Then, undaunted, he again ascended the gunnels, and this time he reached a vertical position – – – almost. But once again, slightly stooped, with one foot on the gunnel and the second approaching success, he flipped over the side.

How many times would he try to stand erect on the gunnels to accomplish that delicate balance that appeared impossible? But he would not concede defeat. Over and over he rose, the muscles of his calves taut, while the boat swayed beneath him, and over and over he fell into the lake, seemingly unable to conquer the balancing act.

Then, finally, he stood upright, his body grasping the rhythm of the rocking canoe as together they acted out the delicate dance of partners. Victory. Knowing he would not maintain equilibrium for an extended period, he raised a clenched fist dove into the lake and swam ashore.

There they were, two boys enjoying themselves on a summer’s day under a canopy of fluffy clouds, juxtaposed against the undulating canoe. And I, advanced in years, thought of my own experiences balancing when life moved precariously, when it was necessary to steady myself on the gunnels of time.

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