The Pawcatuck River (black line)

A few years ago, my buddy George and I undertook to explore the countless waterways in Rhode Island and Connecticut by canoe. I have kept a journal of our excursions, and will occasionally post some of the highlights from it, illustrated by the high quality artwork which I scratched on blank pages. Suitable for framing.

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I had casually remarked to George, as we sat by my fireplace one rainy afternoon playing board games, that I hoped to take a canoe and investigate the small river that runs past the cemetery near my house, as I have never seen anyone boating or fishing on it. His characteristic enthusiasm was instantly kindled, and he insisted on coming along. Several weeks later, we rented a canoe — a bright red Pelican brand, 15-1/2 feet long — and put in at the old cemetery.

I live half a mile from the line between CT and RI, and our venture up this little river wended back and forth between the two states. (This state line is actually a trifle fuzzy, as it turns out. The states of Connecticut and Rhode Island have been battling over it, off and on, since Colonial days. That battle recently flared up once again, when the sleepy border town in CT sent a tax bill to several homeowners who had always thought they lived in RI. And they also had tax bills from the equally sleepy town in which I live to bolster that impression. The Minutemen were called in, bells peeled in church steeples, men in strange wigs dipped quills in pots of ink and poised themselves to sign declarations of independence — but the gnomes in the tax offices worked things out at the last moment, and disaster was narrowly avoided.)

I’ve been referring to this serpentine waterway as a “river,” but that word might be a trifle too grand. It’s more like a stream that has too high an opinion of itself, based no doubt upon the fact that 150 years ago men built numerous mills next to it. Alas, both mills and stream have long since been forgotten, and the “river” has never gotten over the humiliation. In a tantrum, it has thrown down trees and scattered debris left and right, making passage a constant challenge. We spent more time out of the canoe than in it, scrambling and climbing and pulling the canoe behind us. We might have been better off leaving the canoe on shore and walking the route.

We consoled ourselves by exploring one of the abandoned mills, which had a beautifully constructed dam that, once upon a time, controlled the flow of water. Atop this dam were several remnants of iron contraptions that had once operated the sluice — including an enormous iron wheel. Iron rusts, as you know, and this wheel looked like it hadn’t been touched by human hands in a hundred years.

So George immediately began turning it. It didn’t budge. He turned harder. It made some ominous grinding noises. I mentioned that it might be wise to stop fiddling with it. (This dam stood about 15 feet high, and there was a substantial body of water being held in place on one side of it.) George was encouraged by my words, and really put his back into his efforts. The wheel groaned; it scraped; it squeaked; it turned.

And the small pond on the upstream side began to churn. Water poured forth from the base of the dam with a joyful roar. Fallen trees, large rocks, lost bicycles, flotsam and jetsam — everything that we had laboriously climbed over was swept away by the force of the tidal wave.

“Cool!” George remarked, looking about for other gadgets to experiment with. “We should have done this before putting in the canoe.”

For some reason, I suddenly found myself thinking about a computer game that George and I have enjoyed off and on over the years. The game is called Baldur’s Gate, and it features an eccentric character named Minsc. This Minsc is a powerful warrior character — a barbarian, actually — and he is known more for the power of his arm than that of his intellect. He’s a loveable character, actually — he carries around a pet hamster named Boo — but he’s suffered a few too many blows to the head. (Boo, this animated character will inform you, is a miniature giant space hamster.) When Minsc encounters any obstacle in his path, his immediate solution is to crash enthusiastically through it with a loud whoop, when others might first pause to conjure a plan.

I eventually persuaded Min . . . I mean, George to turn the sluice wheel back to its original position, and we headed back downriver. The return trip was noticeably easier, I had to admit. I also had the distinct impression that some houses had gone missing along the riverbank, but we did not stop to investigate.

Just beyond the cemetery where we put in is another mill, but this one is still in business. It is no longer powered by the river, but the dam remains — and a road bridge passes across the top of it. This bridge has three waterways through which the river passes, three square tunnels, if you will, underneath the road. The water cascades over the dam through two of those passages, but the third had no flow on this day, merely a pool of stagnant water. And a wheelchair.

We spent a few minutes conjecturing how the wheelchair got there — and more importantly, what had become of its owner. Indeed, we spent a good deal more time wrestling with that conundrum than we did planning how to get our canoe across. (This dam also stands some 15 or 20 feet above the lower waterway, but fortunately it offers no wheels to turn. Residents along the river were grateful for that fact.)

And this is when I realized that Minsc had come to life. With an enthusiastic whoop, my buddy lifted the canoe over his head and charged under the bridge. I had one fleeting instant to grab a dangling rope which was attached to the bow before the canoe was thrown over the dam, and I immediately regretted my decision. The Pelican flew free, paused in mid-air, plunged downwards, then swung with a resounding thud against the concrete of the dam’s lower face. Skin burned from the palms of my hands as the rope whizzed through, but I somehow managed to arrest the canoe’s fall without following it myself.

Minsc thought this looked like great fun. He grabbed the rope from my bloodied stumps, pulled the canoe back up, and attached a bungee cord to the stern seat. He casually tossed me the rope, suggesting that I “hang on,” and immediately set the Pelican free once again. But this time the canoe did not drop like dead weight — it bounced. “Boinged” might be a more accurate description.

“Yo yo!” Minsc cried gleefully as he yanked on the bungee repeatedly to keep the canoe in its antic dance.

Somehow we got the canoe back in the water, a trifle surprised that it still floated, and continued on our way. Which is to say, we resumed climbing in and out of the canoe, paddling and portaging slowly along. (I had by now figured out why I never see anyone boating or fishing here.) At one point, our progress was blocked by a mass of vines and fallen limbs that formed a sort of living web across the river. Minsc instantly leaped from the canoe and went into a barbaric frenzy of pulling, ripping, tearing, throwing, and breaking everything that lay in his dreadful path. In short order, he had completely cleared all things, living and dead, from the waterway — and for some distance on either side, as well.

We were both growing weary of the incessant blockades in our path, when we came upon the largest snag yet: a large tree had fallen and accumulated an impressive aggregation of debris. Upon reflection, I realized that it was probably a beaver dam, as the entire mass was completely impenetrable. The river had found its way around, but its current merely pushed our canoe firmly against one of the riverbanks.

Another dammed portage

But that didn’t stop Minsc, who leaped forth without warning, grabbed the stern end (with me still seated in the bow, mind you), and charged into the woods with the canoe bouncing and bumping miserably behind. I had moved my own seating to the ground on the first bounce. Before I could regain my composure, he had cleared a path through the woods like a cyclone, bypassed the beaver dam, and climbed to the top of an overhang that stood about six feet above the river.

Without pausing for breath, he threw the canoe into the river (no yo-yo this time) and leaped into it like John Wayne mounting his horse. I cannot explain how he managed to land inside the canoe, nor how the canoe remained upright, nor how he did not burst through its bottom; I can only say that I did not imitate his example.

This was the last of our snags, and we soon reached the Pawcatuck River — whose adventures will wait for another telling.

 This is the first in an occasional series of stories drawn from my old canoe journals.

  7 Responses to “Adventures with Minsc and Boo”

  1. I do like this.

  2. that was fun! i was back in youth group portaging and achieving deliberate and wicked sunburn! so curious about the wheelchair….hmmmm….:)

  3. Now THAT is a story, my friend, that I can understand ;-p I will be waiting to read further adventures of Minsc and Boo (somehow I thought you would be Boo in the analogy). Benwa Boo…bwahahahaha…has a nice ring doncha think?

  4. The telling of that adventure from your perspective had me laughing to tears. Haven’t laughed that hard in a long while. Thanks for sharing the memories!

    • More to come, my friend. It was great fun typing these up, reliving those laughs. We’ll have to bring Boo out of retirement!

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