Paddling the Peconic

Written By: Terry  Schein

Paddling the Peconic School’s out, Summer barely begun – a time of joy for young adolescents everywhere – except for my then twelve-year-old daughter, Jessica, who was sulking about. She was to leave for camp in a few days, to appease a friend, a concession agreed to for only one month. Jess disliked camp intensely and had made it known to all that this was the last of it, foR–eV–eR! In less than two months she would become an official teenager, and – the universal lament of parents – growing up so fast. A mother’s instinct to cheer her child kicks in. Not yet warm enough for the beach, no more shopping to be done, no movies of any interest – when I remembered an ad clipped from a local newspaper many years before. The Peconic Paddler advertising rental canoes and kayaks for boating on the Peconic River. Perfect! I thought. Something completely different from the usual Summer pleasures of the Hamptons, different from the beach, shopping, or dragging her around to antique shops and shows, and one that might sparkle brighter when all the Summer seasons dissolved into a pastel watercolor wash of pleasantly recalled, near-identical memories. She consented to my proposal with a typical thirteen-year-olds’ shrug and a curt “sure.” “It’ll be fun! An adventure!” I assured her. We joined a small group gathered that morning outside the tiny office of the Peconic Paddler, in Riverhead. After checking in we all boarded the flatbed of a pickup truck fitted with racks of canoes and kayaks, and driven to the launch site. Assistants helped us into a canoe, handed us two oars and pushed us off in shallow water not three feet deep, where I looked down upon a pristine river bed. It was a beautiful, warm, sunny morning – as though Mother Nature invited herself to come along. In the brief commotion of jockeying canoes and kayaks maneuvering to break away, I turned to Jess sitting astern and cautioned her to hold tight and not lose her oar. As though prophesied, not a minute later she cried out that the oar was gone. Relieved to see it floating, and not sinking as I’d feared, we clumsily maneuvered the canoe to fetch the oar – now drifting away from us – when the group from behind plucked it from the water, handed it to Jess and went on their way without much of a pause. I shouted a hearty “thank you” at their retreating backs and waving hands. It was to be the first of many thanks proffered to the kindly fellow boaters, and strangers ashore, who gave their assistance throughout that watery purgatory I thought would never end. Very soon it was made obvious guiding a canoe on a straight forward course required a mysterious skill. Somehow, I’d confused a canoe with a rowboat, recalling a memory of my youth rowing quite nicely together with an older male cousin. As the de facto captain I gave orders for the oar positions – I’d take the right, she’d take the left, vice versa, and so on – but nothing we tried seemed to work for more than a few yards when we’d be moving at odd angles again. A thought that the canoe was possibly defective had me mentally arguing a complaint. We were in a shallow, meandering stream, bordered by wetlands, trees with low over hanging branches brushing our hair as we ducked under, and quite alone now as everyone else had passed us gliding by in perfect synchronization. Zigzagging every which way, caroming off the embankments, eventually – after an interminable length of time later – we came out into a lake. We found a shady cove, beached the canoe, and welcomed a long lunch break. The sun was higher and the day had gotten warmer. So far, it hadn’t been a propitious beginning to our adventure. Dreading what I had gotten us into, disappointed with the unrealized expectations for a pleasant diversion, there was little conversation. A quiet child of few words back then, she was unusually non-talkative. Feeling okay? Tired? I asked. She looked up from her sandwich, said she was okay, paused a few seconds and added that she wished I would get over being so upset. My frequent outbursts of frustration and anxiety had deafened me to my own unpleasantness, and ruining our day together. Wasn’t this, after all, my idea for cheering her up? Duly chastened I’d calmed down, gave in to the unsettling fact there was no other way but to forge ahead, that eventually we would come to the end of this ordeal – and resolved to salvage the remainder of the day for her sake. Jess was skeptical of sports and lethargic when urged to participate, which led me to question this decision, and wondered why she had accepted. We resumed the struggle of keeping the blasted canoe on course. At times we seemed to be getting the hang of it, even occasionally making good time. Settling in to each other’s company, lulled by the tranquility of the environment, we gazed at the essence of the primordial beauty the river gave up to us, gawked at the muskrat that cut across our bow, and when we rested I took the photos of the shape-shifting riverscape; various species of ducks; free-formed clusters of water lily pads, that would be assembled into the photo-collage currently hanging in the front powder room. One of the photos is of a swan elegantly gliding toward us. Waiting for it to come closer I ask Jess to look at the camera. “I want to get you with the swan,” I said. “Mom??” The swan had picked up speed but still not in the frame. “One second. Look at me.” The swan began hissing. “Mom! Can we go?” “One second, hold still,” as I fiddled with the focus ring. “MOM!!!” she shrieked. The swan was charging straight for her hissing and flapping its six foot wingspan. Frantically, she plunged her oar into the water – I joined in – and we moved the canoe far enough away from the now retreating swan. Laughing with relief and the absurdity of fleeing an attacking swan, she reluctantly joined me while complaining that it wasn’t funny. As if waiting in ambush, the river’s greater physical challenges lay ahead as we came upon the first in a series of obstructions preventing further navigation – recently known to me as – a portage. After a brief discussion about possibly wandering off course, we began to move the canoe over, but our combined strength was lacking for the task. With the help of a couple’s two strapping late-teenage sons, we were on our way once more. And, later on, the strapping sons rescued us again when the family happened upon us desperately struggling to free ourselves firmly stuck upon submerged pilings, after our frantic unsuccessful attempts to avoid them. Overwhelmingly grateful for their assistance, I offered to take them all out to dinner, but they just laughed and said it was no big deal. We paddled on while debating which of the sons was the cuter. Another portage involved a detour around a low dam formerly in use when the cranberry bogs – no longer cultivated here – were drained. We came to descending wooden steps leading to an enclosed, shallow pool. There was no one around to help so we freed the canoe to slide solo down the steps, joined it in the pool and with no other choice, continued on through a lengthy, eerily dark and dank culvert under a road. Our movements and the lapping water the only sounds echoing in the narrow space, I began making bad horror movie sounds to her giggles and unconvincing pleas to stop. Finally, we came to the last portage which required hauling the canoe up a steep embankment, across a forsaken back road – somewhere in another dimension of time – and down a narrow crevice of rocks on the other side. Our commotion startled an elderly African-American couple peacefully fishing nearby, who quickly came to our aid. A petite woman, a skinny kid and two advanced seniors, might have evoked an image resembling the heroic figures of the Iwo Jima Marine Corps Memorial. Forgotten in the mayhem of paddling and portages, the initial idea for Jessica’s pleasure, I wondered what was achieved to that end. Heading back home both of us bedraggled and exhausted, I asked her if she had a nice day. She thanked me, said it was great but just wanted to get into her bed. I told her she’d been a terrific sport. Relieved to hear that it wasn’t a total disaster, I made the suggestion: “Let’s do this again now that we know what to expect, maybe in another five years when you’re older and stronger?” She smiled and said, “Okay Mom, but could we maybe get separate kayaks next time?” Terry Staverman