HITTING ROUGH PATCHES, AND FINDING SMOOTH WATER LATER….


“Hey, Rick, good to see you!”

I was at the reunion celebrating 100 years of Camp Pathfinder’s existence, where I learned to canoe trip in the ‘60s, and saw a familiar name tag near me.  I found the face vaguely familiar, as much as a face one hasn’t seen for 46 years can be familiar.

Rick (not his real name) turned and said hi, without nearly the surprise I had.  I told him the college I was fairly certain he had gone to (correct), and reminded him that I stayed at his house on a trip from the camp back to Rochester, New York, to accompany the campers back to the camp in central Ontario the next day.  I even got his street right, remarkable, considering I had not visited Rochester in 45 years.  I then asked what he was doing.

“Teaching math.  And I have authored five textbooks.  Good to see you again after the last reunion.  What do you think of the place?”

I had never been to a reunion.  We had not seen each other in 46 years.  I have taught math, and I certainly can subtract 1967 from 2013.  I haven’t authored much of anything, other than a few articles in several different fields, like neurology, Navy medicine, wilderness.  I certainly haven’t authored any textbooks.

I replied: “The things that changed needed to, and the things that didn’t need to change are the same.”  Rick liked that line, saying that was exactly what he was going to talk about at the “Council Meeting” the next day, where we would all be.  He then saw somebody else and left me, without another word.

I had known Rick really, really well at Pathfinder.  I had worked with him in the camp office, when I wasn’t out canoe tripping, which half the time I was.  I was–in a word–bummed.  I saw him several more times at the reunion, always with a lot of people near him, for he was a prominent person in the camp and a major “player” at the reunion.  I made it a point, however, not to initiate any further conversations.

I’m shy; while at times I can force myself to talk to strangers, if they reply the way Rick did, I shut down.  To an extrovert, that is no big deal; to me, I have put myself on the line and failed badly. I wish I could easily change this behavior, but it has been exceedingly difficult to do so.  I tried to tell myself that probably Rick had a lot of other things on his mind, but I was bummed.  I had no desire then to look for another name tag with a familiar name. Maybe I would the next day. Frankly, I was ready then to leave the reunion.

Instead, later that evening I sat outside the kitchen, away from the many gatherings, next to a couple, enjoying the coolness and the beauty of sunset over Source Lake, which I had not seen for nearly half a century.

“Venus is setting,” I commented, half to the couple, half to the sky.  It is how I start conversations.  If I can teach or get into my comfort zone, I open up.

The woman was interested in my comment, found Venus, and her husband looked, too.  They were from Brooklyn, where seeing stars or planets is often impossible.  Above Venus, I showed them Arcturus; overhead, the Summer Triangle, in the south, Antares.

“Let’s go down on the kitchen dock,” I suggested.  It was a clear, pleasant night.

With the wider view afforded by the dock, I showed them Cygnus the Swan, the Northern Cross, with bright Deneb at one end and dimmer Albireo at the other. With a telescope, I told them Albireo is one of the most beautiful double stars in the sky.

I pointed out the Big Dipper, showing them how it could be used as a clock, running counterclockwise around Polaris every day.  Using the Big Dipper, one can tell time at night, which fascinated them. I showed them Polaris, using my outstretched fists to show our latitude of 45 degrees.  In two minutes, they just had learned how to tell the time and latitude without anything more than their eyes and hands.  That’s heady stuff.

We turned to the south to view Scorpius, the head, Antares, and the tail.  The whole constellation appeared before us, barely clearing the quiet boreal forest across the now lovely, dead calm lake.  I told them how my wife and I once saw Orion rise over a calm lake late one night, perfectly reflected in the water.

It was late, and while the parties were occurring all over the island, I was tired.  As we walked back to where we had been sitting, I mentioned that they could always see the Moon from Brooklyn, and if they started following the Moon’s cycle, they would learn a lot.  The Moon is essential in both the Jewish and Islamic calendars.  If they used the bright stars like Vega, Altair and Deneb like Broadway, Madison Avenue, and Wall Street, they could learn to find their way to the lesser known areas in the sky.  It isn’t difficult, and I suspect perhaps this couple will.  I wrote an astronomy column for a newspaper for two decades without any formal astronomy background.  It takes rocket science to go to the stars, but not to learn them.

I have neither written a textbook, let alone five, nor changed thousands of schoolchildren.  I was not speaking to three hundred people at a reunion; I was only showing the sky to two young adults from Brooklyn.

But that night I like to think I changed a couple of lives. If I didn’t, I certainly changed the course my evening had been taking.  I didn’t whistle when I went to bed, but I felt a lot better about myself.  The reunion would turn out fine, Rick had just been a small rock in the water that my canoe hit.  I was again back on calm water, paddling ahead strongly.

Wilderness and a clear night sky are a wonderful tonic for the blues.

Day trip in Algonquin Park, on Little Island Lake. I camped on this very spot 50 years ago. I am back right.

Back from a paddle around the island….and of course a little more. These red canoes are hand made, still wood and canvas, and weigh about 41 kg (90 lb). On the day trip, I carried it 1400 meters without stopping. To still be able to do that was one of the high points of the trip. My shoulders hurt for several days after.  Notice the red neckerchief. That is the sign of a head man.  I earned that, and I was not the only one at the reunion who wore one.

Loon and chick, Source Lake, Algonquin Park.

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