Sample text for Scout's honor : a father's unlikely foray into the woods / Peter Applebome.


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1: Canoeing at Jerry's

Since 1976, Troop 1 has been coming to Jerry's Three River Canoes and Campground on the Delaware River between New York and Pennsylvania for the 13.5-mile canoe trip from Pond Eddy, New York, to Matamoros, Pennsylvania, that begins the Scouting calendar each September. It was easy to see why.

When the Delaware was discovered-at least by white guys-by Henry Hudson in 1609, he described it, a bit redundantly, as "one of the finest, best and pleasantest rivers in the world." And from the time the Lenni-Lenape Indians first began plying it in hollowed chestnut logs, its 330 miles, and particularly the 73.4 miles of the Upper Delaware, have been viewed as some of the most scenic stretches of navigable river in the Northeast. Once polluted, the river is now full of brown and rainbow trout, smallmouth and striped bass, walleye, pickerel, panfish, carp, catfish, and white suckers, and the Upper Delaware, which is burrowed into the Appalachian Plateau, has become the most popular canoeing river in the Northeast. The river begins near Hancock, New York, at the edge of the Catskills, and meanders down past tiny riverside hamlets like Buckingham and Lordville, Kellams and Callicoon, which had their heyday in the era of the Erie Canal. It makes its way in artful twists and turns past spectacular shale and sandstone cliffs rising several hundred feet in the air and finally empties into the Atlantic Ocean at the mouth of Delaware Bay.

Ben and I joined the assembled masses of Troop 1 on a crisp September morning at the troop's traditional meeting place at Roaring Brook Elementary School. We caravaned up the Taconic Parkway, across the Bear Mountain Bridge, through the desultory town of Port Jervis. As we arrived at the river, I had two conflicting thoughts.

The first thought was that, all things considered, this didn't seem too bad. Ben had been to one of the troop's weekly Wednesday-night meetings and seemed almost instantly at home there. One father I knew in Atlanta had referred quite proudly to his bratty kid, who found something to whine about at every birthday party, Little League game, or school trip, as "oppositional"-as if his kid's fits, snits, and tantrums bespoke some glorious inner reserve of independence and creativity. Ben was not oppositional. He tended to assume that the natural order of things was benign, not malignant, and that other kids were likely to be benign too. So while he didn't really know anyone in the troop, he was immediately a part of it, happy to plop down on the floor with the other kids intently listening to the Troop 1 Scoutmaster, Dr. Flank, the white-haired gentleman from my introductory session, give pretrip instructions on gear, garb, and canoeing technique. And truth to tell, what was there not to like in spending a gorgeous fall day canoeing down the Delaware River? Even for me, who was maybe a tad oppositional, this trip felt like a felicitous, wholesome introduction to our new life as rugged venturers into the great outdoors, especially since it was not likely to entail sleeping outside, forgoing indoor plumbing, or coping with animals better viewed at the zoo or in wildlife videos than in the wild. The trees were showing the first reds, yellows, and golds of fall. Our fellow Scouts and Scout dads, in their Timberland, Columbia, and Patagonia outdoors gear, seemed full of virtuous vigor and good cheer. Jerry's World Headquarters, a ramshackle wood frame cabin with a Direct TV satellite dish on top and canoeing safety instructions and photographs of visiting bears on the walls, had a pleasantly behind-the-times quality that seemed worlds away from our immaculately manicured little slice of suburbia in Westchester County. Two golden Labs and one black Lab jumped in and out of the water nearby and a crew of beefy young men took your money, carried canoes on their head, and transported adventurers in vans old enough to have survived Vietnam. And it was either this or rendering myself inept at some household chore, so it wasn't like I had a better alternative.

The second thought was that maybe I should have paid more attention to the waiver I had signed from the Three Rivers Canoe Corporation. I had absentmindedly skimmed the legalese acknowledging that I was fully aware that canoeing down the Delaware River carried inherent risks, dangers, and hazards that might result in "injury or illness including, but not limited to, bodily harm, disease, fractures, partial and/or total paralysis" and other things that I was disinclined to experience. The waiver added that there was, of course, the danger that the guide might misjudge terrain, weather, and water level; and the risk of unforeseen events like falling out of my canoe and drowning. (At one time, an average of ten people a year drowned in the Delaware, a number that has declined to two or three a year since the National Park Service took over management of the upper part of the river in 1978.)

As Dr. Flank, a retired chemistry professor, stood in the tall grass down the hill from Jerry's World Headquarters building, waving his paddle above him like Crazy Horse brandishing his rifle as he prepared to attack the cavalry, a third disquieting thought began to nag at me: I didn't have the slightest idea how to paddle a canoe, especially down the rapids clearly marked on the mimeographed map we had been given. And the more Dr. Flank went on, the more I found myself thinking about the helpful hand-lettered sign next to the pay phone: "Any serious life threatening or medical emergencies 911 in effect in this area."

True, Ben and I were lined up next to perhaps twenty kids, some brawny high school kids, most scrawny little twerps barely out of elementary school, and if they could do it, I guessed I could. Of course, like all good Boy Scouts, we were prepared. We had our balers, made by keeping the handle and bottom but cutting the top off one-gallon plastic milk jugs with our Swiss army knives. We had tied the baler to the seat of the canoe using some knot or another that the kids knew even if I didn't. We had on our bright orange personal flotation devices. We had our spare clothes, extra pair of wool socks, and bag lunch all tucked into the hermetically sealed waterproof bag Ben and I had purchased at great expense earlier in the week. Most of us had compasses just in case. I'm not sure in case of what-my guess was you were going to paddle downstream whether it was E-SE or E-NW-but we had them anyway. We had our first-aid kits with assorted bandages, creams, poultices, scissors, and tweezers. We were led by Dr. Flank, who at sixty-seven had only done this about a thousand times. He was aided by his able assistants: Mr. Johnson, a middle school science teacher; Mr. Toonkel, who owns a business that sells plumbing and heating supplies; and our Dudley Do-Right, all-star Scout, Senior Patrol Leader Todd Davis, who was only in tenth grade but gave off an air of imperial confidence as he walked around checking kids' life vests and conferring with Jerry's minions.

But the more Dr. Flank went on, the more I started wondering if this was such a great idea, especially since, as Dr. Flank helpfully reminded us, a drowning is eight times more likely in a canoe than in any other form of aquatic conveyance.

"Listen up!" shouted Dr. Flank, glaring at the kids like some kind of Old Testament prophet on a bad hair day. Dr. Flank had various forms of address, I came to learn, and this was his full-throated "YOU-BETTER-LISTEN-VERY-CAREFULLY-TO-EVERY-WORD-OR-YOU'LL-PROBABLY-DIE" mode. First, he told us that the water temperature was about 50 degrees and went on and on about how fast hypothermia, which can be fatal, would set in if we found ourselves under water for any length of time. The body loses heat 240 times faster in water than in air, and a person capsized into water below 55 degrees Fahrenheit can face hypothermia, which causes disorientation, drowsiness, and lack of coordination, within fifteen minutes or so. I wasn't all that happy to jump into a cold swimming pool on a hot summer day, much less face death by frigid dopiness like one of the first hapless city slickers to die in a wilderness horror movie, stumbling through the forest in a dull, chilly haze until falling nose first to the ground stone dead, too addled even to check his stocks before dying.

Then he ran through the proper technique for the J stroke, which allowed the person in the rear of the boat-me-to use the paddle as a rudder to steer the boat as we moved downstream. The idea, as any idiot who has ever paddled a canoe knows, is to begin with a forceful stroke, propelling the canoe forward, then to bring the paddle around behind the canoe as if forming a J. We all mimicked the J stroke, our paddles whooshing through the air on cue. I stroked dutifully, hoping the mere motion would turn me into an accomplished canoeist.

"Follow the black snake," Dr. Flank went on, meaning the clear ribbon of water indicating there were no rocks underneath. "If you see an inverted V, it means there's a rock straight ahead. You want to steer away from the rocks. If you don't, if you find yourself stuck on a rock, this is what you do. First thing," he said. Then he repeated it louder in case any of the kids were already drifting off into other frequencies. "FIRST THING! You need to lean hard on the downstream gunwale to raise the other end of the boat above the waterline. It takes four to six seconds to fill a boat with a half ton of water. That happens today, you're in big trouble. Then, when you're stable, use the grip of the paddle, not the tip, to push yourself off the rocks and back into the water. If you do tip over, let the boat go first. You don't want the boat behind you ramming into you from behind, especially when it could slam you into a boulder. A boat full of water can squash you flatter than a pancake. You can literally be crushed to death. And then float down feet first, with your feet as high as you can get them. You don't want to get your feet caught on a rock and get pulled under. And when you go through the rapids, get off the seat and kneel down on the bottom of the canoe to bring down your center of gravity and keep the canoe stable. Leave about twenty yards between one another, and be sure to go where it's smoothest. Don't try to be a hero or you'll be a wet hero."

Ben seemed oddly oblivious to the potential disasters at hand, but my head was swimming, which was more than I could probably do if I ended up in the water. I briefly considered suggesting that he go with a more experienced partner, but then I realized that half the adults looked as spooked as I felt. They didn't get it either! Forget the lawyer's language about partial and/or total paralysis, which seemed terrifying but rather abstract. As we pushed the canoe into the water, getting dangerously wet and cold suddenly seemed almost inevitable.

We clambered in, Ben in front, me in back, and shoved off from the muddy banks of the river, at which point it became clear my incipient panic was not misplaced. I still had no idea how to do the J stroke. I felt like a duck with Alzheimer's-what exactly was I supposed to do?

Ben was in the front earnestly paddling away under the assumption that I knew what I was doing as our navigator. But despite my ineffectual efforts at J stroking, the boat seemed to be going where it wanted to. Maybe the better thing was to paddle on the right when I wanted to go left and paddle on the left when I wanted to go right. That's how the Indians did it in every movie I had ever seen, and if it was good enough for them, it was surely good enough for me. We tried that and splashed around for perhaps ten seconds. Other Scouts and dads, no matter how befuddled they had seemed on land, were sailing merrily down the stream, with the lads, no doubt, comforted by the assured competence of their old man. Mr. Toonkel, who was wearing a black wet suit and paddling around imperiously in a bullet-shaped kayak as he looked out for the stragglers at the rear of the flotilla, watched us from a distance, obviously sizing us up as the class dunces.

After paddling, stroking, splashing, and floundering around for another few seconds, I heard an unmistakable metallic grinding sound. Then I felt a dull, ominous thud. Then we ground to a dead stop. I didn't know much about canoeing, but, though my mind raced frantically for alternative possibilities (We'd dropped anchor? I'd accidentally activated a braking system no one had told me about? We'd been attacked by river sharks?), I quickly realized what had just happened. In my first fifteen seconds of sanctioned Boy Scout activity, I had managed to land the canoe on a rock, almost certainly setting in motion one of the cataclysmic scenarios Dr. Flank had so grimly outlined for us. Hypothermia? Flattened against jagged rocks by a runaway half-ton canoe? Drowning as our feet were being crushed under subaqueous boulders? Our old standby of partial and/or total paralysis? It was bad enough to put myself at risk, without imperiling my son as well, and the thought passed fleetingly through my brain that if I managed to drown us in our first fifteen seconds, I'd almost certainly go down in history as the single worst Scout who ever lived.

Ben shot me a look that bespoke mild annoyance, a distinct lack of confidence in my canoeing abilities, and/or tempered amusement, rather than serious concern for life and limb. He apparently didn't realize the gravity of our peril. "We're on a rock, Dad," he said helpfully.

"Thank you for sharing," I replied, trying but failing to affect an air of blithe, I've-got-it-all-under-control unconcern. "I'm well aware of that."

"Do you know how to get us off?"

"Of course I do," I lied.

My first concern was for the risk of our boat being swamped by that half ton of water Dr. Flank had told us about. But before we could adjust our weight toward the downstream gunwale, whatever that was, something surprising happened: Nothing. The canoe did not fill up with water. We were not pitched perilously into the swirling river. We did not have to worry about floating downstream with our feet in front of us or slipping into a fatal hypothermic torpor.

Dr. Flank had made it all sound so dire and perilous back on land. But now that I had almost instantaneously put us in harm's way, it was quite clear that short of panicking and standing up in the canoe, it was going to be pretty hard to sink it. Despite the water rushing by, we seemed fairly secure in our temporary roosting place on the rock. So first we kind of shimmied the canoe off its resting place. And then, with a minimum of pushing with the paddle handle, we were able to slide off the rock, into the water, and back to our ineffectual floundering around. I had learned a little about canoeing, but a lot about Scouting. Indeed, my first Scouting epiphany was: IT'S GOOD TO BE PREPARED, BUT, IN TRUTH, THINGS ALMOST NEVER TURN OUT AS BAD AS YOU FEAR THEY WILL.

I resumed our journey with a new sense of vigor and purpose, having proved that my son was safe, after all, under my command. Ben continued paddling away. Mr. Toonkel, looking like a mustachioed mallard in his kayak, shouted out a little encouragement about proper J-strokemanship, and I gave it another go. Let's see, paddle forcefully, bring the paddle behind in a J, then straighten it out like a rudder to steer. Push it toward the left and the canoe goes to the right. Push it to the right and the canoe goes to the left. It wasn't nuclear physics. Sure enough, this time it made sense, and almost instantly I became the master of my canoe-bound domain. Before long, we were seriously hauling butt in an effort to catch up with everyone else. Within a few minutes we were in the thick of our armada. This turned out to be a pretty varied group. Two canoes held boys and their moms, which we were told was a first-ever female incursion into Troop 1's little male world. In one canoe a man with blond hair seemed to be arguing nonstop with his son. You could hear them all the way to Port Jervis.

"PADDLE, KENNETH," the man hollered.

"I AM PADDLING, DAD. MY ARMS ARE TIRED," the kid hollered back.

"THIS IS THE LAST TIME WE'RE DOING THIS, KENNETH."

"GOOD, DAD. IT WAS YOUR IDEA ANYWAY."

Several canoes were captained by older Scouts, high school kids in muscle shirts and do rags. Todd was with one of the smaller kids and Dr. Flank was with another. We were all spread out across perhaps a 150-yard stretch of river in a haphazard flotilla, joined by an occasional raft, tube, or canoe full of college kids from Pennsylvania, Hasidic Jews on an outing from communities in Rockland County, or nurses celebrating a birthday.

Once I had mastered the J stroke, our trip turned, with amazing dispatch, into a thing of quiet, surprising bliss. By mid-morning the temperature was in the low 60s. The sun was bright. The sky was a vivid, cloudless blue. There was no wind and no humidity. It was a perfect day for canoeing. We paddled along, sometimes pushing the tempo to pass another canoe, sometimes trawling at a leisurely pace. The river was relatively high, which meant it didn't take much work to keep up with the group, and the canoe slithered effortlessly over most of the rocks beneath us. The air was thick with wildlife, here a turkey vulture, there a hawk. We spotted a bald eagle within the first hour and watched the Canadian geese squawking overhead.

Before long, we passed our first rapids, which turned out to be a blink-and-you-miss-them affair known as Staircase Rift. It presented us with pleasingly churning water that felt like a very mild version of the wave machines at landlocked water parks. So much for the horrific rapids. (See Epiphany #1 above.)

Before long, it was time for lunch. We paddled our canoes to the shore and pulled them out of the water at a brushy gravel bar called Mongaup Island. Ben and I found a commodious rock to sit on, opened up our waterproof bag, which looked like a small body bag, and pulled out our lunch-two peanut-butter-and-jelly and two turkey sandwiches, a bag of sesame sticks, chocolate-chip granola bars, carrot sticks, and, the pièce de résistance, a Snickers bar for each of us.

The big kids largely hung out together under a big pin oak tree, the two women and their sons ate under another, and everyone happily unveiled a profusion of modest delights-giddy bags of brightly colored M&Ms; gaudy deli sandwiches of turkey, pastrami, and ham; coveted containers of Pringles; plastic bags full of pretzel rods; one kid's famous homemade teriyaki beef jerky; assorted trail mixes or "gorp" of peanuts, walnuts, Craisins, raisins, dates, apricots, Rice Chex, Cheerios, chocolate drops, and Lord knows what else; Cokes and big plastic Nalgene jugs of water and Arizona Iced Tea and drink boxes of toxic but irresistible Yoo-Hoos.

We all pretty much ate what we brought, but the snacks like the trail mix and pretzels got passed around. When we got ready to get back in the canoes, Mr. Toonkel walked through the group with a big bag full of red, green, purple, and orange Tootsie Roll Pops, which he gave out to grownups and kids alike. Fortified and sucking happily away, we packed up our bags, wrappers, and debris, emptied it all into garbage bags stowed in our waterproof bags, climbed back into the canoes, and shoved off.

The rest of the way was even better. The rapids past Mongaup Island and Butler Falls were more challenging, and after the river bent sharply to the right about three-quarters of the way through our route, we turned into the most spectacular scenery of the trip-250-foot sheer cliffs rising from the left banks of the river, which made us feel like agreeably inconsequential bit players at the bottom of a sublime aquatic canyon. We waved jauntily to the onlookers up on the bluffs. It was by now hot enough for everyone to take off their jackets and fleeces and make the trip in T-shirts, many of which soon got very wet. I'm not sure who fired the first splash, probably some of the younger kids trying to aggravate the older ones, but as we sailed under the cliffs about half the boats started splashing each other, a use of the paddle that Dr. Flank had not mentioned in our initial briefing but now seemed to tolerate as acceptable youthful exuberance.

Ben would have been perfectly happy to be a combatant, but I opted for a safe, dry distance from the hostilities. Instead, we got ourselves wet in the exhilarating final plunge down Sawmill Rift, where you were supposed to hug the right side of the stream while avoiding a bunch of massive boulders strewn casually around in the middle. We bounced on through, not exactly candidates for some PBS white-water rafting epic, but feeling we'd got our money's worth nonetheless. Then we exited the canoes-Jerry's minions were on hand to turn them over, dump the water out, and affix them to the top of the ancient, rusted-out vans. We'd been on the river, counting lunch, for about five hours.

We'd made the trip largely as a solitary pair, sharing a canoe and sharing a lunch, so it felt more like a father-son outing than a Scout outing. But once we all hit land, we became a group, like returning explorers who now had our perilous journey in common. We all helped Jerry's men lift the canoes and compared notes about this or that rapid or rock. Todd Davis came over to us to see how we did. Todd had a way of walking that made him look like he was bouncing off the soles of his feet and a gift for talking to younger kids as if they were his equals instead of the awed squirts they felt like.

"This your first time canoeing?" he asked Ben, who nodded. "You guys did good then," Todd said. "And you were smart enough to stay pretty dry." Then Dr. Flank came over, checked on our progress, and told us he was glad we had joined the group. We all milled around, then piled into the vans in anticipation of being repatriated to mere civilization and bounced and rocked our way merrily back to Jerry's. From there, we recovered our gear, threw it in the car, and stopping only to worship at the shrine of the Golden Arches, headed for home. Despite myself, I'd liked every part of it-the trip to a place I'd never been, the physical exertion of the canoeing and the meditative bliss of floating down the river, and the sense of being a part, however tenuously, of this armada of dads and kids. I loved the idea of Mr. Toonkel handing out the Tootsie Roll Pops to the kids and dads-who pampers dads in this world? And what I liked best was doing it with Ben, and on his turf, not on mine.

Copyright © 2003 by Peter Applebome

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Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Boy Scouts, Father and child United States Case studies, Boy Scouts of America