Four years ago when we bought our canoe, my colleague the kayaking expert told me two important truths: "You know they call canoes 'divorce boats,' right?" and "Remember, when you're in a boat, you're always between swims."
Over the past four years we've paddled in choppy lakes and rivers with quirky currents, through speedboat wakes and stump fields and wind-whipped waves, but so far both our marriage and our canoe have stayed stable. Today, however, we broke that streak when our canoe flipped in the Ohio River.
It was the Ohio River that first inspired me to buy a canoe, but we've never actually taken the canoe out there. First we wanted to make sure we had the skills to handle river currents, which we've done on the Muskingum many times. The difference, of course, is that we rarely encounter any other boats on the Muskingum except the occasional bass boat, while the Ohio is always busy with speedboats, fishing boats, sternwheelers, and massive coal barges with their powerful wakes. It doesn't take much of a wake to make a canoe wobble, and the right kind of wobble at the wrong time can lead to a swim.
So we were careful: we chose a boat ramp near New Matamoras, far from heavy boat traffic, and we set out on in good weather when the water was flat and calm, with not a lick of wind.
Except it didn't stay that way. We felt a little wind at our backs while paddling upstream, going about a mile and a half without seeing another boat--unless you count the rusted hulks of barges rotting on the bank near a backwater, one with rust holes big enough to put your head through and the other with trees growing out of it. We saw fish darting through the mud in the backwater, kingfishers and swallows flying overhead, a few ducks and possibly a heron, along with old tires, beer cans, bits of broken docks, and what appeared at first to be a turtle but, on closer inspection, turned out to be an inner tube. All in all, a lovely morning to be on the river.
Then we turned downstream, and while it's easier paddling with the current, we found a stiff wind in our faces kicking up small waves on the water. Still we managed to stay upright, and we even commented on how odd it is that we've never turned over the canoe. My husband suggested that we go out to a nice calm lake someday and flip the canoe near a beach just to see how it rolls. Moments later, we were in the river.
I'm not sure exactly how it happened except to note that it was entirely my fault: I needed to shift positions to give my knees a break, a maneuver I've executed hundreds of times before without flipping the canoe, but this time I shifted wrong and the canoe turned over in a flash. Fortunately we were close to shore, so we didn't have much trouble grabbing the canoe and swimming it toward toward a sandy beach.
Things we lost in the Ohio River: my husband's glasses and his clip-on shades.
Things we did not lose in the Ohio River: my glasses, my hat, his hat, his knee pads, our water bottles, our new paddles, our life jackets, two bananas (they float!), the dry bag with the granola bars and hand-wipes and keys and cell phone inside (but not his wallet or harmonica, which stayed in his pocket and got thoroughly soaked but did not end up at the bottom of the river, and if you're wondering who takes a harmonica canoeing--well, you never know when you might need one).
Or the canoe. We didn't lose the canoe, or our composure, or our lives.
Taking an unintentional swim in the Ohio River taught us a few important things. First, an empty dry bag can be used to bail out a swamped canoe, and even a Marietta College Pioneers baseball cap can be used in a pinch. Second, if there's a chance I could end up in the water, maybe it's not a great idea to wear capri pants that turn transparent when wet.
Most importantly, though, we learned that we can survive a swamping. We didn't even have to think about what to do after the boat flipped; our instincts and training kicked in and we got her to shore, and after we'd bailed and rested, we got right back out on the water and started paddling again.
Now we no longer have to wonder when we'll have our first swim, but we'll keep a sharp lookout for the next one. (Good thing I didn't lose my glasses. At least one of us can see.)