The Canoe Drifted Away, and I Was Marooned

Near the village of Northwest River, Labrador, I once rented a cabin from a woman named Katharine whom men of a certain age called “Gasoline”. They would say, “Good morning, Gasoline” to her, or “Want some caribou haunch, Gasoline?” I later found out that she’d acquired this nickname because she fueled the sexual urges of local men in her younger days.

One morning, I decided to go canoeing on the long, narrow body of water, known as Grand Lake, adjacent to my cabin. I put my canoe in the lake just north of a cascade called The Rapids, and although I paddled it in a more or less easterly direction, it moved in a northerly direction. Since I knew there was a short stretch of fast water at the lake’s entrance, I wasn’t too concerned, but once I’d gone beyond that stretch, a strong tail wind began pushing the canoe yet more swiftly north.

After an hour or so of having crests of froth splatter my face, I figured it was time for me to paddle ashore. The wind seemed irked by this decision, for now it began blowing from what seemed like all points of the compass with renewed energy, as if it was saying, “I’m the boss around here.”

The canoe responded to the wind’s arrogance by zigzagging maniacally in one direction, then another, while completely ignoring my paddle strokes. This is getting serious, I thought, and my paddle strokes felt like they were being made by person stronger than I am. When I was 10 or 15 feet from the shore, I grabbed the canoe’s rope and hopped into the water.

All at once I saw a mink skittering along the shore. Contemplating this sleek critter, I forgot to contemplate the rope in my hand, and a gust of wind easily jerked it loose. I watched the canoe move toward the middle of the lake…without me in it. I had no choice but to splash my way out of the water…without the canoe.

I felt like I was marooned in the middle of nowhere. There were no roads or even trails in the vicinity, and the nearest dwelling was on the other side of the lake. On the lake itself, there was no boat other than the dwindling speck of my canoe.

What to do now? I thought about hiking back to my cabin, but this would have been impossible because the cliffs along the shore would bar my way, so then I considered taking an inland route. Easier said than done, for shortly after I walked away from the shore, I encountered a dense jungle of alders. I engaged in hand-to-hand combat with these apostates of the birch family, and the apostates won.

All of a sudden I heard my stomach growling. No, it was a bear growling. No, it was actually my stomach growling. As I seemed unable to distinguish between these two different types of growls, I wondered if I might be losing my mind, but concluded that, no, I was just feeling very hungry. After all, the caribou jerky, the tins of sardines, the apple, and the peanut butter sandwiches I’d brought along for the trip currently resided in the canoe.

I tried to look on the positive side — at least the wind was keeping Labrador’s voracious hordes of black flies and mosquitoes from sucking my blood. Tried and failed. Better to be sucked dry by these damned insects than to meet my so-called Maker here, I thought.

I’d been stuck on the shore for five or six hours when I saw a motorboat skimming across the lake. Or rather the wake of a motorboat. I hollered and waved my hands frantically. Did the boatman see me? He seemed to be heading away from me…

…but he was actually tacking and swerving to avoid the lake’s waves. At last he opened the boat’s throttle so that he was roaring toward me. Soon the fellow in the boat — a local man perhaps in his mid-fifties — came close enough for us to shout at each other.

“Hey, aren’t you the guy who’s stayin’ in Miss Gasoline’s cabin?” he
said, raising his voice above the wind. “Grand Lake’s been kickin’ up a fuss with you, eh?”

“I was canoeing and got whacked by the wind,” I shouted back. “My canoe is probably on the other side of the lake now.”

He shook his head in amazement. “You didn’t hear the forecast of 30 knot winds?” he said. “That’s not a problem for me ‘cause I have a motorboat, but a canoe…”

I decided not to tell him that I regard weather forecasts as fictional and seldom listen to them.

The fellow gestured for me to climb into his shallow draft aluminum boat, and once I did, we motored three miles across the lake to where my canoe was bouncing in the water along the shore. My benefactor tied the canoe’s rope to his boat, and we soon made it to my cabin because we were now going with the wind rather than against it.

“Nice to have the right sort of boat, eh?” the man grinned.

I thanked him profusely for his help, then I pulled the canoe ashore, this time grasping the rope firmly, indeed emphatically.

In the cabin, I made myself some coffee, and in my haste to drink it, I raised the cup too quickly to my mouth and spilled most of the coffee on the floor. Another blunder, but one that was somewhat less serious than the one I’d recently made when I gazed at a mink.

Lawrence Millman is a man who wears a variety of hats. As an explorer, he has journeyed to the Arctic 35 times, but not once to Rome; as a mycologist, he has a fungal species named after him (Inonotus millmanii); and as a former prisoner of war in academia, he has taught at Harvard, the University of New Hampshire, and — best of all — the University of Iceland. His 18 books include such titles as Last Places, Our Like Will Not Be There Again, Lost in the Arctic, A Kayak Full of Ghosts, Northern Latitudes, Hiking to Siberia, At the End of the World, and Fungipedia. Bruce Chatwin called him “the master of the remote,” and environmentalist Paul Kingsnorth describes him as “a true original who takes no prisoners. He keeps a post office in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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Thrill seeker
Thrill seeker
2 months ago

Hey that’s a good one, but seriously who hasn’t done that, geez!

Ray Brown
Ray Brown
2 months ago

Gasoline is not to be outdone by Mad Dog 20/20 of Seattle fame.