On Vashon Island, Washington, you don’t drive by a free canoe on the side of the road, even if you have no idea how to get it home or why you suddenly want a canoe. Island people know how to spot a good adventure.
This is a story you can enjoy in two ways, possibly more if you’re in a canoe. Read the story below and/or hear Jesse Gardner read “Treading Water in the Dark” on There She Goes, a podcast dedicated to travel stories told by the women who wrote them: Listen on Apple Podcasts ↗
To the person who decided to abandon their well-loved but much-neglected canoe on the side of the road with a hand-written “free” sign taped to its side, I just wanted to say thanks. You were taking a chance that someone would see its potential and decide to revive the old girl, although I bet you were skeptical.
For one thing, she wasn’t very pretty. Her bow seemed askew, woefully besotted with cracks exposing soil and hunks of foam. A tired rope, grey with age and stiff with dirt, hung limply from a rusted metal bit slapped onto the original frame.
Everything I saw told me to get back into the car and leave her there, that she was too far gone to be saved. I mean, I love a good bargain, but I’m not emotional about it. The day was already hot and getting hotter when I tugged at the rope to get a sense of how much she weighed. I could hardly lift her a foot off the ground. How in the hell would I get her home?
Curiously, a disintegrating wheelbarrow tire hung awkwardly from the far end. Perhaps to make dragging the carcass easier? I wondered. Another rope hung from these mess of parts, its matted fibers held together by rust and determination. The urge to find redemption in her mangled bits was clearly stronger than my good sense.
How can a person drive by a canoe, right there on the side of the road, without stopping?
Get in the car, my brain yelled. You know nothing about canoes! Or fixing canoes! Or being in a canoe! You’re in over your head. Get out while you can.
I didn’t hear the woman approach me, so when she spoke, I startled.
“I’m sorry, did you say something?” I asked her, a little embarrassed.
“The canoe — someone must have just put it out. I didn’t see it when I started my walk a half-hour ago,” she replied.
I nodded, resisting the urge to see the timing as a sign of good fortune.
“Looks big. Looks heavy,” she said as she walked its length, sizing it (and me) up.
I sighed. It was both of those things. I could tell as much the first time I saw it, 10 minutes before. Back then, before I turned the car around to get a better look, I knew it was big and clunky and that I had no business getting a canoe that day — or any day, really.
“How will you get it home?” she asked.
A canoe, especially this canoe, was going to take my time and probably my money and I couldn’t figure out why I was even considering it. Get it home? What then?
“I have no idea how I’ll get her home,” I replied to the woman, not understanding why but knowing for certain the canoe was coming home with me. “I’ll have to figure it out.”
I took a drive to the lighthouse that morning hoping to see the orcas. Online reports estimated an arrival within the hour, so I made my way toward the best spot to see them: Point Robinson. During the last ice age, glaciers carved the deep channels that support visits from both transient and resident orca populations, and beyond the sandy beach, the island quickly stair-steps to a depth of over 400 feet in the length it would take a person to skip a rock. I’ve seen them twice before. Both times they’ve passed without fanfare or antics, simply breathing and swimming, bringing me to my knees with the kind of hallelujah even a mostly-atheist like me would utter in the face of God.
But it wasn’t just the orcas I was searching for — I was learning to live in a world without my dog, my sweet Zeke, and needed a reason to get out of bed that morning. From the minute his puppy paws trotted toward me on the day we first met, to the way he looked at me as he lay dying five days before, he was damn good dog. Being loved by Zeke was like getting picked first for a team every day for 12 years — you just can’t believe your luck. The muscle memory of our last embrace, his body filling every space next to mine, was almost too much to bear that morning. He couldn’t get close enough to me as he fought against slipping away, wanting desperately to stay even as the cancer ravaged his bones. In his last moments, he turned toward my voice, trusting me to guide him down his next, forever path.
“Thank you, Zeke. Thank you for loving us,” I whispered. My family followed with a chorus of tearful love-yous, all of us gathered around him, hands pressed into his fur so he knew he wasn’t alone. Finally, his breath slowed. His body, still warm with life and love, became still.
And the orcas never showed. I guess you can’t control serendipity, nor stand in line for a personal helping of extraordinary just because of a little heartbreak. Oh, well, I thought, you can do worse than an hour at the beach.
I headed toward home — or tried to, anyway. How can a person drive by a canoe, right there on the side of the road, without stopping? I had to turn the car around in order to get a better look at it, propelled by the same muscle memory that ached for my dead dog, now twitching by the prospect of a good project. I could hear the gods laughing.
While I waited for help to arrive, I couldn’t resist creating the backstory for the new character in my life. I mused the owner had recently died and his artifacts, both wanted and not, were being distributed in the manner of such things. Get that thing out of here, someone wailed, it’s been taking up space in the garage for years. The free sign, hastily made with a Magic Marker on a sheet of copy paper, lacked sentimentality but did its job. Just get it to the side of the road and we’ll see what happens, they said, maybe it will disappear.
Help arrived in the form of the only person I could think to call, a friend with a knack for knowing a little about a lot of things. “I’ve got a question for you about,” I began, but she cut me off — she never lets me finish that question. “Trans!” she exclaimed, narrating the punchline to her favorite joke about her identity. “What are you doing?” I asked.
“Is this a trick question? I’m not falling for it.”
“I’m on the side of the road with a free canoe. It’s a long story. I need your help.”
She arrived, windows down, blasting Peter Gabriel’s, “In Your Eyes.” After taking a quick look at the canoe, then looking at my car and finally, looking at me, she sighed. “Do you really want this canoe?” she asked.
“Yeah. I really want this canoe.”
The getting-it-onto-my-car part of the story was filled with a healthy bit of terror, a lot of heavy lifting, and panic induced by visions of decapitating innocent passers-by when the thing eventually fell from a lack of proper knot-tying.
“Drive slowly,” she said. “I’ll follow you. If I honk madly, pull over.”
Wild honking began about three minutes later and I dutifully pulled over. Surprisingly, the cars that passed us after going 15 below the speed limit for the past mile cheered us on with peppy honks and friendly waving. Island people can sense a good adventure-in-the-making, I think. After we re-tied the failing knots and bargained with the gods of Madcap Adventures, we were back on the road.
She made it home in one piece, mostly. Upon the descent from my car, I noticed a cluster of ants jumping ship from the bow to my lifting arm. When I looked closer, I could see a line of ants streaming from a crack in the aluminum deck, just under a hunk of exposed foam — undeniable evidence that nothing easy was to come in this relationship.
The last time I sat in a canoe was at summer camp in fourth grade. That summer, the one after my aunt Mary killed herself and my body began to betray me by growing taller than all the boys, I got guts — the three badges pinned to my swimsuit proved it. The green fish meant I passed the hardest swim test and could swim in the deepest water — all the way to the dock in the middle of the lake, where the middle school kids draped their bodies dangerously close to each other and seemed to like it. The blue triangle meant I could solo in the dinghy sailboats and the brown circle meant I could paddle a canoe with a partner. The canoeing badge was hardest to earn and everyone knew it. I failed once, the summer before, and wasn’t going to fail it again.
The problem wasn’t the paddling or the knots you had to learn to get the badge, it was the “tippy canoe” part of the test that separated the big kids from the babies. To earn it, campers had to intentionally flip their boats over, swim underneath to find the air pocket, knock on the hull (presumably so the counselors knew you were still alive) and proceed to tread water in the dark for a full minute. As if that weren’t enough, when you and your partner resurfaced, you had to right the canoe and get back inside, unassisted.
Everything in my world had changed since I tried the test last summer: everything was different and worse and the only person who understood any of it was dead. The week before camp started, I overheard my new step-mom tell some friends of hers that Mary couldn’t hack it, that my aunt was just a selfish coward. I wanted to tear the lips off her face for saying such things, I wanted to grab bunches of her hair and yank them back while I screamed in her face, “Shut the fuck up, you never met her,” but I couldn’t move. I was the real coward, I thought. I couldn’t even defend my beautiful aunt, the one who believed I was funny and smart and that “I was a pretty little thing” even though kids made fun of my boyish haircut and pink glasses.
As twin surges of grief and rage washed over my eleven-year-old body, I gasped for air between the hot tears that always came when I thought about Mary. There, in the darkness of my bedroom, all I could do was find an air pocket and tread water until the morning came, promising myself I’d figure out how to be braver — someday.
It’s funny: I don’t remember canoeing once I earned all three badges that summer long ago, but I do remember them pinned to my swimsuit, three in a row on a single safety pin, fastened to my left shoulder strap like the medals of valor they really were. My be-brave-someday arrived in the form of a canoe that needed saving, even if I had no idea how to do any of the work it needed me to do.
She had seen rivers, that’s for sure — haphazard fiberglass patches marred the length of her hull, scars from unseen rocks, rough bottoms and hard portages, no doubt. And, although they weren’t pretty, the repairs had kept her afloat, year after adventurous year.
As I traced my hand along her sides, my fingers found grooves of metal I suspected were a serial number. I couldn’t make out the markings without kneeling beside her on the grass, and as my knees sunk into the earth, I spit on my thumb to rub the metal plate clean enough to read. It left me breathless:
13583 JG JG
My initials, twice.
To whom it may concern, thanks again. I thought you should know she made it home and is going to be okay. I’ll make sure of it.
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All photographs courtesy of Jesse Gardner.