Archive for June 12th, 2020

THE ONLY TIME IN MY LIFE I WAS A RINGER

June 12, 2020

I had forgotten about this event for a half-century.  Or I had repressed it.  Anyway, while I was doing my morning 5-mile walk through the park today, just having seen my thirtieth different wild flower species (a Golden Iris), I thought of how this would be a lost summer for the young men who were on the canoe tripping staff at Camp Pathfinder, Canada, where I learned to canoe trip, nearly 60 years ago. One only has a few years when one is strong, has time, is willing to and can work hard, get muddy, sunburned, wet, cold, bitten by bugs, and travel by pack and paddle through of the most beautiful country anywhere.  I took 25 trips all over Algonquin Park in 6 summers, paddled to South River Village one year and spent two weeks up in Temagami in 1964.

I don’t know what brought the memory deep out of my hippocampus, but this morning I thought of a canoe race I was in 54 years ago–my only canoe race, a two man one, international competition (after all, we were in Canada).  

We staff members at Pathfinder had days off, where we either had to paddle two miles to the car dock from the island camp, or if we were lucky, caught a power boat.  Once there, it was 2-3 miles to the Park Road, and then we hitchhiked into Huntsville, about 40 miles away.  We did our laundry, had ice cream, great food (although it was great at Pathfinder, too, and lots of it), then had to retrace our route back to camp. One night, I went to the local night club at Hidden Valley, a nice hangout, which was still there in 2013 when I came through.  Back then, if one went to H.V., it would be a real late night getting back to camp. Somehow, we all did.

One weekend, and my memory is obviously very flawed, considering I hadn’t thought of this event since LBJ was president, Justin W. and I were approached by I believe the mother of two boys at the camp.  She was a rich socialite.  Her name would be immediately recognized in the clothing industry if I wrote it, but she wasn’t the story.  Justin and I were.  There was to be a canoe race on a lake nearby.  It may well have been Lake Muskoka, but all I remember was a big lake with powerboats.  Justin and I were handed paddles and a canoe, and I can’t remember if we wore PFDs.  We probably didn’t, because back then we thought we were immortal, rather than teenagers.

Justin and I weren’t great friends, and that summer, he was a loose cannon, one day holding on to a rock formation along the park road, head slumped over like he had hung himself. Cars stopped and people actually got out to check on him.  He was lucky he wasn’t cited by the OPP (Ontario Provincial Police).  He was a strong guy, so he took the bow for power, and I stayed in the stern for steering.  I can’t remember the number of canoes, but there were several but probably fewer than 10.  The water was calm, and when the gun went off, we exploded into a fury of foam, power, and testosterone.  Justin was amazing. Normally, I can overcome most bow paddlers from the stern, but he was giving me everything I could handle, and I didn’t want to waste anything on steering if I didn’t have to. My arms were aching like they never had ached before or since. I think the race was about a half mile, certainly not more than a mile.  

We won comfortably, but not a blowout.  Thrilled, we headed back to shore, arms quivering from the effort, but heads held high, very proud of ourselves.

Here is the part I don’t remember.  At first, I thought the camp leaders were present on shore and we had to leave, but a day later, my memory had changed a little. It turns out that thinking about something changes it neurologically, just like observing something in nano space changes it, too.

I think Justin and I got the trophy.  I think so, because I have a vague memory of our having come back to camp with it.  

Briefly.  

Because I also remember, and this memory is fairly clear, that we were not going to keep the trophy, and I have a vague recollection of giving back the hardware.  

How I wish I could remember this, and now as an old adult, wonder what in the world had been going on with the socialite and the canoe race.  I do remember our being told that we had no business being in that race.  That was before the term “ringer,” but today someone would say that she brought in a couple of ringers to win the race.

Today, we recognize a ringer as someone who shows up for a pick up sport who played for a Division I NCAA school. In basketball, he dribbles through your legs and you wonder what happened. If you shoot, he blocks and you have a leather sandwich. 

Justin and I talked about the race only briefly afterwards.  I remember his saying that we were racing against trappers and real woodsmen, and we beat ‘em all.  Thinking back, I wonder if the competition was a bunch of middle aged guys with beer bellies who couldn’t tell a J-stroke from jaywalking, or thought the bow was something you did after a good performance.  But I like to think we beat tough competition.  Of course, today, there would be video and posting on Instagram or Facebook, but back then it was a lot better, because we could make up a better story, sort of like I am doing here.

The following year, 1967, was my last at Pathfinder, and I was head man on four canoe trips.  I thought it was only two, but years ago, Pathfinder put them all on line, and I found my name as “Mike Smith in charge” four times. I decided to check on the trip I had with Justin. I went on Pathfinder’s Web site and found the trip about a minute later. Bless the guy who did this; what a great service to past canoe trippers.  There it was, a two day 12-man trip to McIntosh and Brûlé lakes, a loop I had forgotten about, and which I had mixed up with my last trip that year. On August 7, Justin was second man to me on that trip with four staff, four canoes, 12 men, the Blackbear-Ink portage, my first time over the miler, and the 1 mile Nature Trail portage which I would carry again four days later on my last trip as a staff man, and not again for 46 years, when I carried a canoe over it on a day trip.

Without putting it down.  I texted my wife, saying something like “That mattered.”  She texted back an eyeroll icon with “if you say so.”

The trip Justin and I took was for one purpose: to get every camper still in camp out of camp for one night so the staff could have a break.  That time of year, the long trips were underway, and the camp had fewer kids present. We took the last 8, along with four trip staff.  These guys weren’t into canoeing, but we got them out and back, and Justin was superb. He made sure there was no nonsense, and he helped the third and fourth men on the trip as well.  Nobody swamped, I checked the box “No” on the return where it asked, “Was there any profanity on the trip?” (not until the first portage, anyway) and  the staff had a great night alone in camp.

I gave Justin an AAA, the top rating, for the trip.  He told me he didn’t deserve it. I assured him that his presence was valuable.  He was great. I wonder if we spoke of the canoe race. We probably didn’t.  Too bad.

I’ve got to send in a donation to the Algonquin Campership Fund for Pathfinder. And I think I will send this to the current owner.  Maybe he can give me more information on the great race. Or be glad he wasn’t around when it took place.

I’d never add that trophy to go with winning the 5-10 hp power boat race on Honeoye Lake in 1960, and a bowling trophy at Clover Lanes in 1963, which was still there, too in 2013, but closed in 2016 to make way for Whole Foods.  I got a clock for winning my age group in the 2nd Annual AAN (American Academy of Neurology) 5 km run in 1992, but that and the other two were national events.

I’m still undefeated in international canoe race competition.  

The author back again in a red canoe.. Camp Pathfinder canoe dock; August 2013. Note the red neckerchief I am wearing

Day trip to Little Island Lake (and others). Author in blue shirt in back. I camped at this site nearly a half-century earlier.