I came to the j-stroke late in life, the real j-stroke that is. Tried to learn it through written instruction. What I ended up doing was an example of a failure to communicate. A forty-five second you-tube set both me and the canoe straight. Turned out the j-stroke wasn't really j-shaped. Sure came as a surprise to me. These days should you ask me if I can track a canoe in a straight line and I'd say yes but not while on the water. You never know what ironic forces lurk beneath the surface.
Two weeks earlier I'd taken my heavy, homemade, ash paddle and thinned its laminated blade with plane and sandpaper. Knock a few ounces off. My intention was to use it throughout the trip. At the moment it was in my hands and was used solely for the first two days. Then my right triceps told me it was time for a change. Worked well enough so I'll carve three lighter paddles, two small ones for grandchildren and another for me.
Before heading down the fast water we paused looking for an obvious path. In the old days the stern paddler would stand to get a better view. Not this old dog. Thirty seconds later we were in the Boundary Waters and passing inches over a field of car-sized boulders. Our sunlit paddle down John was almost easy. Just enough work to warm the muscles.
I'd seen no need to pull out the map case for our entry. Been down this way a half dozen times. At the far end it came as no surprise seventeen years had skewed my memory a hundred yards north and as a small surprise the landing looked pretty much as I'd remembered, even down to the large shore boulder guarding the trail.
We putzed our way through the offload. I pulled old man rank and stabilized the canoe while Brian did the heavy lifting. All was placed on dry ground to the side of the trail to allow easy passage should anyone come down the portage. Boundary Waters etiquette. Moments later a group of four arrived as we were saddling up.
Brian threw on a big pack, grabbed the rod tubes, stove and trotted off. I dropped my common sense, slid on the other big pack and hoisted the cooler by its handle. At close to eighty pounds the load was more than I could carry but knew me and cooler would part ways somewhere up the portage. Call my trot more of a stagger. Started by setting the cooler down and switching hands every twenty rods. Then fifteen. Ten. Finally five. I deserted the beast atop a steep downhill about forty rods from East Pike. The descent would've been dangerous. I was pooped and my legs gimpy. The remaining rods were easy. Thank you Brian.
Rested on our empty handed return. There, Brian threw the canoe on his shoulders. Carrying the food pack and paddles was a puffer for me but didn't require a rest stop. Figured, in the future, I'd have no problem with fifty pounds, maybe a little more. Unfortunately, we averaged close to sixty-five. I know, I know, the voyageurs humped a minimum of one-eighty but they died of hernias and heart attacks before they were thirty-five. Had they been fifty-two or sixty-eight they'd have been hard pressed to carry their egos and silly little red hats at the same time. Simply put, we had too much stuff. However, on that carry the seed was planted for another trip, maybe even a travel trip, with a little more forethought.
On the carry Brian'd squeezed a little information out of the four young men (odd, I didn't consider myself a young man when I was twenty-seven). Turned out the campsite we were hoping for was taken. Like that came as a surprise. Oh well, the portage over, we slid the canoe along the basalt slab where I'd caught my first smallie back in '66 and loaded. Don't know what prompted him but Brian said we should check out the site anyhow. Why not? It wasn't but a hundred yards out of our way. As we approached, it sure looked occupied even though we could identify nothing specific. No canoes at the landing so we slid closer. Finally we beached the nose, Brian climbed out and a minute later we were unloading.
Got me contemplating what'd happened that morning. Showed up early at the Ranger Station and we stink-eyed it open. Did the same at the outfitter. I figure something similar happened at the campsite. We were told it was occupied. Sure looked occupied. No doubt it was occupied. Could be our combined aura, desire and connections with the spiritual forces underlying existence just wiped those campers out. One second they're wondering what kind of beer goes best with s'mores, next second they're in their canoes, orbiting Oberon out by Saturn and wondering what the hell just happened. Then their heads explode. Sorry guys. Next time camp elsewhere.