by: Joel Bates
We took the summer interns on a short float trip the other day, and one of them offhandedly asked, “What’s the most memorable canoe trip you’ve had?” My wife overheard the question, and immediately started giggling. What follows is that story as close to true as I can remember.
I was recovering from a discouraging knee surgery, and my wife thought it would cheer me up to take the family canoeing. The kids were little, so it was to be a short, simple excursion down the most familiar section of our nearby river. It would be easy to park our car at the takeout and have a friend drive us to the put-in, where we would start our afternoon’s adventure. Being dropped off made it important to take extra precautions in not forgetting the essentials.
Before our friend abandoned us, she called, “Are you sure you have everything?” Focused on wrangling four small children, I paused my frenzy in lathering sunblock on our wiggly four-year-old son and dismissed her rather smugly, “I’m a professional river guide, and I think I know what I’m doing!”
She shrugged, climbed in her car, and drove away. I limped over to the canoe. I hobbled around everywhere, favoring the recent knee surgery, but I tried desperately hard to conceal my limp and my feelings of inadequacy. One thing I couldn’t conceal, though, was the oversized leg brace. It seemed to alert every good-willed person around, like a neon sign dangling from my proud neck, “This lame guy needs your help!”
We had to haul the canoe a few yards to the water’s edge, but with my bum knee, I could not manage the short trip. “Help Mommy carry the boat,” I ordered the children. A stranger carrying a cooler quickly set it down and offered to help my wife and kids with the chore. “No need,” I said. “We do this all the time. Besides these kids need the exercise and training.” The stranger looked skeptically at my two-year-old daughter wearing a swim diaper and water-wings. “Yeah, I see what you mean,” he said as he walked away shaking his head.
I began tackling the one task I could do—strapping, tightening, and buckling the life jackets on the children. Then my wife gasped, “Oh no!” Now, an astute family man can learn to decipher the tonal qualities and variations of his wife’s words and will respond signifying that he cares for her feelings, that he is in this with her, and that she always has the right to choose the restaurant. These nuances I was learning well. But when it comes to jeopardizing a man’s sense of adventure or leisure, no tonal reinterpretation is necessary. A man is prewired to know when his fun is about to be interrupted. When she said, “Oh no!” I had a keen sense that all fun was about to depart.
“Joel! did you grab the paddles?” I immediately knew it was worse than no more fun—I had failed.
I deflected the question. “I don’t have the paddles. I thought you were getting them.” The heat of anger rose in me. I stood looking around and threw up my hands, “Wow! No paddles! Here we are ready to go canoeing, and we have no paddles!” I said not even trying to conceal my sarcasm.
“Here’s a paddle, Daddy,” my six-year-old daughter offered. She proudly held aloft a small, two-foot- long, wooden, souvenir paddle that I had brought back for her from one of my whitewater canoeing trips to the Nantahala Gorge. The situation was a lot like the time Jesus urgently needed some food to feed the five thousand people, and a small boy offered up his meager supper—totally inadequate and completely unquestioning. Jesus smiled kindly, took the humble offering, and fed a multitude.
I wasn’t Jesus. I wasn’t feeling very grateful or gracious. I looked at the little paddle and knelt down eye to eye with my daughter and said flatly, “This is a toy. It won’t work.”
My wife, undaunted by our lack, smiled coyly, grabbed the tiny canoe paddle and thanked our daughter. “Let’s go!” she called.
“You gotta be kidding me!” I said with total disregard for our child’s pathetic, paddle offering. “We cannot go with that.”
“Do you have any better suggestions?” she smirked.
She thought this was funny. I was fuming. With my bum leg and no suitable paddle, the real issue was that I felt completely helpless.
“Are you coming?” she asked.
I stood there, staring in disbelief at the little, red canoe now brimming with my happy family. Trying to regain my senses, I stomped to the front of the canoe, stomped in protest as well as I could with a leg brace on, stomped till it hurt, and then limped the last few feet to sit hunched over in open displeasure at this undignified lunacy.
We shoved off as my wife steered and slapped at the water with the tiny, toy paddle, the kids leaned over the sides, carelessly tossing pebbles into the glassy stream, and I scowled at the bow. It wasn’t just that I didn’t have a paddle in my hand, but also that I was relegated to the front of the canoe. No self-respecting man would reasonably place himself at the front of the boat, abdicating all steering power to his bride! From the headwaters of the Jack’s Fork River to the mouth of the Current River, a visitor will unlikely see such a sight, but here I was, wounded and humiliated.
From her vantage point in the stern, my wife could take in the full oddity of our circumstances. Despite my sour attitude—nay, perhaps all the more because of it—she considered the ridiculous paddle in her hands and my pathetic, overly dramatized pouting. Then, she did what any sensible woman would do. She got the giggles! She couldn’t stop, and the more she giggled the more her laughter erupted until her cackling mirth could be heard by anyone around, including the bewildered fishermen casting lines from the shore.
“Hey, are you folks alright?” one concerned angler called.
Over the din of my wife’s amusement, I sat upright, composed myself, and with feigned nonchalance lied, “We’re fine. Just fine.”
“You seem like you could use some help,” he urged.
With renewed haughtiness, I said, “I’m a professional river guide, and we do not require assistance!”
My wife laughed even harder. The children by this point sat in tense confusion as they observed the marked difference in their parent’s deportment. Dad seemed pretty fed up and yet scornfully protective of his fragile ego. Mom, on the other hand, beat the water with a tiny stick and laughed maniacally as though she had indeed finally gone crazy.
As I turned to command my wife to show some respect and pipe down, it was as though the Heavenly Father placed a firm hand over my mouth and reset my sight, allowing me to gaze with His eyes upon the rareness of this delightful, extraordinary episode in my life. I suddenly realized the inordinate humor in our absurd plight. Against my own better judgement, I grinned. I didn’t want to, but I couldn’t help myself. My grin precipitated into a chuckle that grew to a full-on belly laugh. We looked utterly ridiculous, certifiably insufficient, and nearly helpless, but none of that mattered. We were together, laughing and living the adventures of everyday life.
I almost missed it—how beautiful my wife looks when she laughs with unbound joy; how innocent with gleeful wonder are our children, peering over the gunwales toward shore as though on a jungle safari! I almost missed the bewildered faces of the fishermen who witnessed our inside joke and nearly crushed the humor of my own insufficiency in the face of such a loving, all-sufficient Heavenly Father. It wasn’t five loaves and two fish, but I was filled as only Jesus can satisfy.
We eventually stopped laughing and just glided along at the river’s pace, feeling the deep contentment trickle through us that so often comes after a good, long laugh. We settled into this unique float trip, quite unlike any we had done before, and we were just beginning to rest in the moment when my wife once again gasped, “Oh no!...Honey, do you have the car keys?”
Come along side us as we journey in and out of the wilderness, discovering our Creator in creation.