Paddling, No Water

I have learned some things about life from canoes. I’m not saying I know how to paddle. I have been in canoes twice, and both have been learning experiences. The second time was fun.

The first time, a friend and I decided to take one out on a lake. We slid the canoe into the water. She hopped in. I put one foot on the ladder from the dock and one foot into the canoe, holding on to the dock like a sensible person. The canoe tipped over, threw her out, filled with water, and sank to the bottom, about four feet under the water. She pulled herself back up onto the dock, dripping. I was still hanging on to the ladder.

From this I learn that there are some situations in life where it is dumb to be cautious. You just have to let go, put your whole self in instead of hedging your bets. The trick is to figure out when you are in such a situation, because often it’s smart to be cautious.

I took hold of the rope at the front of the canoe, still attached to the dock, and heaved the thing up out of the water. The canoe was heavy, and I was in my mid-forties at the time. Did I ask for help? No. Did I get the canoe back up onto the deck? Yes, in one heave. Did I hurt myself? You bet. Torn rotator cuff. It’s gotten lots better, but I use the twinges it still gives me to remind myself to ask for help.

The next time—the fun time—I was on the river in Virginia at a canoe workshop, where the whole purpose was to teach people how to paddle. Nothing but my pride got hurt this time.

Here is what happened. The river was low because of a drought that year. Quite low.

We put in at a bend where the river was deep enough for us to paddle around in pairs. I got instructions on the proper way to get into a canoe, the motion of the paddle, the knack of coordinating with my paddling partner, the rhythm and glide.

For a couple of hours we paddled in pairs, and then it was time for solo work. By this time we were downriver a bit. The instructors sat in one canoe. They paddled fast down a stretch of river and then turned sideways to us so they could help us by shouting suggestions. I didn’t know where the others were (back up the river, I think), but I was trying to get to where the instructors were. The water was so shallow that I couldn’t get much pressure with the paddle; it kept slipping through the water or knocking against the rocks on the bottom. “Try paddling faster,” they shouted. I stepped it up. The canoe moved maybe a foot forward.

I come from a culture that believes in trying hard. I was taught that success is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration. And it’s true, of course. Except when it’s not. I paddled, fast and furious, on that drought-stricken stretch of river, until I noticed the instructors laughing.

“You can get out and just walk it down here to where the water’s deeper,” they shouted.


Sometimes we try too hard or in the wrong way. We push too hard, poke at things too much, take on things that aren’t ours, take over when we’re not supposed to. I’m going to plan, in my life, not to try so hard in water that’s too shallow. I have asked my inner wisdom to throw that picture up on the inner screen when I’m in that kind of situation—working the paddles through that inch and a half of water, hearing the divine instructors, the angel guides, up ahead just guffawing. Yeah, that’ll help.

Two people in a canoe hitting rapids.

Did I Say That Out Loud?

By Meg Barnhouse

From Skinner House Books

Wit, wisdom, and hope from the minister in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

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