They said that I should not have canoed with someone who tried to paddle upstream for miles on one of Wisconsin’s wild rivers. They also questioned his idea of canoeing on a moonlit night when thunderstorms were forecast. “You,” they said to me, “have to learn to ask the right questions when recruiting canoeing companions.”
Taking their advice, I now interview prospective canoeing partners. Since this is not an actual job, I can ask those two normally off-limits questions that reveal so much of the real person, namely, “Do you believe in river trolls and water pixies?” and, “Is there anyone who enjoys your company?”
My co-worker Van answered both of these in the affirmative, and so we decided to canoe the Miserable Branch of the Namekagon together. After six days on the river, we learned how important it was to talk through problems and that map reading is a skill.
On the first day, for instance, we narrowly avoided paddling over a five-foot version of Niagara Falls. Van indicated to me that my holding the map of the rapids upside down had been the real source of the problem. I indicated back to him that he was looking at the map the same as I was before we tried to go over the falls. He then indicated that I was a kind of donkey. Looking for common ground in our discussion, I observed that he was the same sort of donkey.
Hoping to build on our relationship, I asked him what he wanted for supper: the sucker I caught that morning or unrefrigerated hot dogs.
Several days later, we further honed our communication skills when we got hung up in two inches of water and could not push ourselves off. Van suggested that we were doomed if we did not start jettisoning cargo to free the canoe up. I replied that it might be easier to just step out of the canoe and push it free. He retorted that we would surely drown and that I was deranged. I said that if he had not decided to wear such fancy shoes on a canoeing trip he might be brave enough to stand in two inches of water.
Shortly thereafter, we encountered some rapids that should have killed us. Amidst the roar of the rapids, Van, instead of paddling, waved his paddle hysterically. When we got out of the rapids, he claimed he had been using his paddle to point out obstacles.
As a consequence of this misunderstanding, I had to listen to a long speech about the common sense philosophy of the Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid and how it applies to democratic societies like the one in our canoe. It did me no good to point out that we only had two voters in our canoe and that I was not going to vote for him.
On subsequent days we mostly scowled at each other, except for the day I tried to hitch a ride on a nearby gravel road that never sees any traffic.
As a result of this trip, I am updating my interview process for prospective canoeing companions. I am adding this third question: When in the middle of a class four rapids, I tend to do one of the following: 1) Use my paddle to point out figment rocks and trolls; 2) Threaten to kill my canoeing partner; 3) Make plans to secretly eat the last of the Oreo cookies; 4) Give long, tedious lectures to my canoeing partner about Scottish philosophers; or 5) Paddle like crazy.
For understandable reasons, I cannot reveal the correct answer.
Rhinelander District Library director Ed Hughes is available at (715) 365-1070.