A few years ago, my buddy (whom I refer to as Minsc) and I undertook to explore the countless waterways in Rhode Island and Connecticut in a canoe named Boo. I have kept a journal of our excursions, and will occasionally post some of the highlights from it. (See “Category” menu to the right for previous installments.)

The day after purchasing “our” sleek new Old Town, Minsc and I set forth to Worden Pond, the headwaters of the Pawcatuck River. But before we could put her into the water, she needed to be officially named and christened.

We stood on the shore of Worden Pond and flipped the canoe upside down. I poured a bottle of children’s bubble-wand fluid over the length and proclaimed, “I christen thee CV Boo!” — the CV standing for “Canoeing Vessel.” Some rather unsavory young men were milling nearby smoking cigarettes, and they were quite interested in the proceedings.

“Hey, what are you guys doin’? Why ya doin’ that?”

“It’s a special formula,” I explained. “It’s a low-friction response fluid that makes the canoe glide through the water with less resistance.”

“Wow. . . how cool is that?! . . . so . . . can we have some?”

I was a bit distrustful of these gents from the moment I saw them. They did not seem to be the stern, adventuring seafarers that Minsc and I clearly were, and I was a bit nervous about leaving Boo unattended while we shuffled vehicles for our take-out arrangements. But they gradually proved friendly enough, and gained some private entertainment for themselves by observing our other unorthodox methods of getting underway, generally involving Minsc testing how hard it was to flip Boo just every time I tried to climb in.

We paddled across the pond as a breeze began to come up, kicking up a small bit of chop. We’d hoped for a calm day so that we could see the bottom; we wanted to look for bomb craters. During World War 2, the Air Force (or whatever it was called then) had a small airbase at what is now Ninigret Park. They kept a mock battleship on Worden Pond to use for bombing practice, though I rather suspect that the bombs were dummies. All the same, there are evidently still craters remaining underwater.

The Air force also built an airplane hangar on the far side, and we made straight for it. It is now abandoned, but still in remarkably good condition. It sits in a small cove which is blocked from the wind, and several boats of fishermen were floating quietly there. We disturbed one man who was fishing with his dog right in front of the hangar. He hadn’t known what the building was, and took a strong interest in the underwater craters. “There are probably lots of fish in them,” he surmised. We made a tentative plan to return sometime and try to climb inside the hangar to explore. [Note to any authorities who might be reading this: we have never carried out this absurd plan!!]

[And we never will!! Honest!]

The hangar sits at the back of a bight, inset between two points, on the north side of the pond. Behind and around this is the Great Swamp management area. In 1675, the Narragansett Indians fought a bloody battle against the settlers in this swamp in what came to be known as King Philip’s War (“King Philip” being the leader of a large Indian uprising). The Narragansetts had a fort hidden deep inside the swamp, to which they retreated after an indecisive winter battle. The settlers eventually tracked them down there, but many of the Narragansetts fled on foot across the frozen swamps.

The Great Swamp is just what its name implies: a huge tract of swampland with a tortuous river flowing through, which eventually takes on the name of the Pawcatuck River. In the spring, when water levels are high, one can meander along in tranquility for hours in a canoe. Minsc and I paddled Boo in that direction. The Pawcatuck River actually runs mostly just along its perimeter, but where it meanders into the thick of the swamp it becomes prehistoric, like a section of Jurassic Park. It twists and redoubles in the most tangled manner, often forking in opposite directions or disappearing into a thicket of dense growth. Once or twice, we were quite unsure which way to go; once, Minsc climbed out and crashed through the trees to scout the route.

This may have been near the spot where the Usquepaugh River flows into the Pawcatuck. This river flows through, or perhaps originates in, the village of Usquepaugh — a name bearing a striking resemblance to usquebaugh, the Gallic word for “whiskey” (and the etymological source of the word). Usquebaugh literally means “water of life,” so perhaps that was the sense which the settlers had in mind when they named the river. The village, however, contains other interesting names — Punchbowl Trail, Smallpox Trail — which suggest a couple good reasons that the settlers might have been thinking of Scotch.

Earlier, as we’d crossed the pond toward the hangar, our bubble-envying acquaintances had been loudly paddling behind us. It seemed that they were uncertain how to get into the swamp, and were following us — which gave us further amusement at their expense, since we had no clear idea ourselves. They had stopped following us when our detour became plain, but we came upon them once again at the entrance to the swamp.

There were four or five canoes in the group, with two or three people in each. In addition to the coarse males that we’d already met, there were two or three women, some other young men, and a couple men with graying hair. It was, in short, a diverse group, and I mentally excoriated the elders in the party for not being better examples.

They were stopped at the entrance to the swamp, effectively barring our passage, all holding their canoes together and eating sandwiches. I loudly asked if we were in time for lunch (it was only 9:15), and they roared in genial laughter. Perhaps a trifle too genial, I thought. Then the reason for their morning munchies became evident.

One of the canoes was a nice Mad River, and I was about to ask the paddlers how they liked it — when I caught the pungent stench of marijuana. “Say, that doesn’t smell like tobacco,” I witticized. They laughed the trademark adenoidal guffaw of the drugged, and indicated that it was in fact not tobacco.

I have always gotten instantly angry when encountering people smoking pot in public. It seems such a rude affront somehow; I have on several occasions wrathfully accosted such people, but this time I exercised a rare reticence, and we paddled by.

About half a mile into the swamp, there is what appears to be a manmade water retention area, surrounded by high dikes or berms. Perhaps it is used to control water levels within the swamp. Whatever its background and purpose, we dragged Boo over the embankment and paddled around the crescent-shaped pond.

A pair of old foot bridges bisects the pond at the center of its crescent. They appear to be abandoned, twisted almost sideways with neglect — and they appear to go from noplace to nowhere, making their history all the more mysterious. High-tension power lines buzzed ominously far above us, but a family of osprey had not been intimidated, having built their nest atop one of the towering poles. The female flew just above us as we sat quietly watching, carrying food to her babies. She screamed at us, and we submissively paddled on.

We also encountered a number of the human species as well, walking along the path which runs atop the dike. Two men in their mid-40s came past, both bald, one bearded. They reminded me of Ben and Jerry, the famous hippy New Age capitalist ice cream magnates. They were biologists, they apologized, and were in quest of snapping turtles, wanting to pull them from the water for closer examination. They made a point of clarifying that they would gently return the turtles to their natural habitat. I’ve had some up-close and personal encounters of my own with the large snapping turtles of these parts, and I wondered who would end up returning whom to their natural habitat, and just how gentle that process might prove.

We reversed our course, noticing that our pot-head friends had arrived and were “chillin’” on the embankment where we had crossed into the pond. We paddled up to where they were sitting — eating and drinking again — hoping to let them see that we were serious canoeists, not mere drugged-up party boaters.

I was in the stern, Minsc in the bow. This was a very generous concession for the owner of a brand new canoe, allowing the Fat One to take charge on its maiden voyage. But I took seriously my role as captain of the mighty Boo, deliberately setting a grim face to show that I knew what I was about. I steered us quite skillfully to the bank, I must say, and Minsc leaped out. His job as bow-man was to gently pull the canoe ashore, lending stability for the stern-man to disembark.

But two factors were against this procedure: the steep embankment, and Minsc. The steepness of the dike meant that Boo was immediately tilted upwards at a precarious angle, leaving a large portion of her underside poised in the air rather than in contact with ground or water. And the enthusiasm of Minsc meant that the transition was accomplished with superhuman vigor.

And the result meant that poor Boo rolled sideways. Turned turtle, in fact.

On a more sedate occasion, I might have reflected with ironic amusement upon our turtle-hunting biologists, even suggesting that they should come study Boo in her present position. But my sudden immersion into the dark water only brought to mind panicked images of the huge snappers in their natural habitat, and my instinctive sarcasm failed me. As I came dripping onto shore, I expressed my dissatisfaction with Minsc’s efforts in terms which I will not record here.

I glanced menacingly toward our partying audience, silently daring them to laugh. But they amazed me once again in their response: they quietly turned their heads away, hiding their smiles behind their beer cans. One of the elders in their party managed to keep a straight face, remarking only that “those Old Towns can be tippy,” a wonderful example of Yankee understatement.

I retorted that it was my partner who was tipsy (a ridiculously false charge, of course, but the best I could come up with in my sodden condition), and one of the women smiled sweetly. “I saw it all,” she said, “and it was his fault.”

The most bitter part of this episode was not my dunking. It was the unavoidable realization that I had grossly misjudged and condemned these strangers. They continually proved themselves my superiors, at least in terms of social skills and friendliness.

Naturally, I hated them all the more, and determined that we would not encounter them again.


  One Response to “Adventures with Minsc and Boo, Part 4”

  1. Especially “adenoidal guffaw of the drugged,” :)

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