Paddling by Darren Bush
David sat warming himself on the riverbank, clothes damp, shoeless, laughing and drinking hot chocolate and sitting in the sun. He shook his head, muttering self-deprecating epithets between chuckles. It was his first time in a solo canoe. It wasn’t his last, but he had assumed that tandem canoe skills would cross over. They do, to a point; the point of capsize.
David Medaris and I met in 1995. He was a reporter for a local paper, and he was writing a story about snowshoes and traditional snowshoeing. I was a guy who made snowshoes and he tracked me down. We talked on the phone for a good while, and at some point I realized that he was asking far more questions than he needed for his story. He was asking questions because he was fascinated in the whole process. Why choose ash for the frames? What materials are best for lacing? Why these different shapes?
I met him a few months later to go for a snow-walk, and it became clear that a) David was an amazing person and b) that we were to become fast friends. I ordered two snowshoe kits, and he and his wife built them. I helped a little when needed and if I recall correctly, we varnished them together.
David would call when he had an idea about an outdoor story. Sometimes he had a clear idea, often he was just fishing. Either way, it usually ended up with us eating lunch and talking about nothing for an hour and a half. After a while, we just started eating lunch, story or no story.
David passed away last October. His health had been sketchy for a few years. None of us pretended he was going to live forever; we all eventually take a dirt nap. But David had outlived his cancer prognosis by a good twenty years. In your face, oncologists.
After David died I looked through my pictures for evidence of our (mis)adventures. There was glorious documentation of many a happy memory.
I don’t remember the year, maybe 2002. David had never camped on the Lower Wisconsin River. We loaded up a big, fat canoe with a big, fat canvas lean-to and a big, fat Rubbermaid full of nice, dry oak. It was fall, and it was overcast. I remember three things about this trip.
First, David asked questions non-stop. I have met less curious 5-year-olds. He was an unending stream of hows and whats and whys. Some were rhetorical, some were real questions, but all of them were thoughtful. His brain never stopped, and it was charming.
Second, we had one of the most spectacular sunrises I have ever seen. Not typical, but dark, the color of venous blood, red and purple. It lasted just a minute until it faded.
Third, we had one of the best campfires ever.
We were in Door County, kayaking with a bunch of friends. David was a beginner, and his goofy, infectious grin was contagious. He wore his old canvas floppy hat with the top cut off, and his hair stuck out like the nest of an overly-caffeinated squirrel. His shirt said it all: Allow me to explain through interpretive dance.
No posing, no pretense, no conceit. David was a novice and proud of it, and would happily play the fool if it served to make another paddler more comfortable with their novitiate status. His message was, “Hey, we’re all in this together, even if we screw up. Especially when we screw up.”
Then, true to his philosophy, he capsized, lost a contact lens, and talked about it later as if it were the best weekend he ever had.
Another camping trip, paddling with a group of men, many of whom were strangers to David. We were on a night paddle, putting in at sunset and paddling by intuition as much as moonlight and headlamps. He was in a solo canoe again (after some practice and experience). Of course, David made friends easily with everyone.
We stopped at a sandbar and lit a fire for cooking our dinner. David was in awe by what I considered to be rather mundane. Not because he was new to camp cooking; he was in awe that he was there, witnessing a flurry of sand management and culinary activity. He was happy just to be, even before the food came out. After the food came out, he was ecstatic.
The last time I saw David, we enjoyed a plate of brownies I brought to the hospital. You would have thought he was eating a gourmet dessert from a Michelin three-star. He gushed, not to be kind to me, although it was. He gushed because he loved the brownie.
What I would give for a chance to share another brownie with David, to shake sand off our shoes, to wring out our socks, to watch a sunrise together. That’s not going to happen. The beautiful thing is that I can relive these experiences by seeing a picture, smelling a river, touching a paddle, or hearing a crane call.
Or, to David’s delight, tasting a brownie.