My parents were married on the second Saturday in May of 1974 and moved to Plum Borough that weekend. One year later, to celebrate their first anniversary, they bought a Grumman canoe for $100, the money my mother said she and my father had saved by not smoking. Now, my parents had never smoked, but my mother usually feels required to justify purchases. It may be her Mennonite upbringing—you don’t waste money. She’s always careful with it, and she always has a reason that it’s okay for her to have spent it. For example, she would get my father to buy her ice cream cones because he lost bets like, “The sun will come up tomorrow.” So even though they had never expended any money on cigarettes to that point in their lives, it was only natural for my mother to claim that the canoe was purchased with money saved from such an abstinence.
A little over a year later, I was born. My parents wasted no time in introducing me to their hobby, and my mother amusedly recounts those early days. “It was fun taking you out in the canoe. No one expected a baby to go canoeing. Of course, you were lying down, and no one could see you. So you would cry, and all of these people from all over the lake would turn their heads, looking for the crying baby and wondering what crazy parents had one out there. Of course, I never hesitated to take you anywhere.”
The lake, naturally, was Keystone Lake in Keystone State Park, part of Derry Township, Pennsylvania, a little more than fifteen miles off US-22 by way of 981-South and State Route 1018. Visits to Keystone Lake comprised a number of my best childhood memories. Certainly, I don’t remember that first canoe trip, but I remember frequent ones after that.
The earliest canoeing memory I have must have been in the late spring or early fall of 1980 or 1981. I was four- or five-years-old, and my sister was two years younger. I’m pretty sure of the year because we had only one poodle at the time—Suzy—who was still a curly, black puppy-like creature. I know that it was late spring or early fall because we didn’t bring any swimming suits, and I vaguely remember wearing long pants, so the weather couldn’t have been warm and summery.
I think it must have been an evening trip. I believe we had a little cooler of snacks that my mom had brought along—probably green grapes, carrot and celery sticks, and possibly crackers and cheese or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. In those days, my dad would come home for lunch, and if they had decided on an outing for the evening, Mom would begin packing the cooler after he returned to work. Mom always did everything with surgical precision. She was a nurse, but she might have been a doctor if her father would have conceded that women could also go to college. But he didn’t, and she wasn’t, and she always made the best of it. Still, everything the woman ever did was precise. The carrot sticks were exactly even—perfect quarters, never whopper-jawed like the ones I give my sons. Celery sticks were of uniform length, and no jelly ever squirted out of her sandwiches.
Once Dad came back home, he placed a metal frame with blue protective foam blocks on it to the roof of the car and bungee corded the canoe on top of that. Mom would toss the cooler, life jackets, and paddles into the trunk, and we would all pile into our 1978 red Ford LTD II, a car I called mine, and begin driving out to the lake. It only takes about 45 minutes, but my sister and I always felt it took hours, nearly as long as a trip to our grandparents’ homes 300 miles away. Eventually, we pulled into the dusty parking lot, and Dad began getting the canoe down. Once a year, he had to stop at the ranger’s station, pay for a permit, and then affix little reflective stickers to the side of the canoe. My sister Lisa and I always loved watching him do it, even if we were a little ticked off that he didn’t let us apply them ourselves.
We had a canoeing routine. My mother would carefully dress us in our little puffy orange life preservers and guide us into the boat. She positioned each of us in a “cell” apiece, that little space between one of the thwarts and the yoke. Once we were in place, she deposited the poodle into the canoe. I can still remember the scratching of her nails against the boat’s steel skin and the way her fuzzy black head with dark shiny eyes bobbed up and down, torn between sniffing the canoe and peering over the side of it. Mom slid her adult-sized paddle and each of our child-sized paddles down the length of the canoe before carefully boarding herself. With measured precision, she then walked the length of the boat and sat on the stern seat. Finally, Dad would shove the boat away from the bank, hop into the canoe, then turn around and thrust the boat out further by using his paddle as a pole against the pebbly lake bottom.
I don’t remember specifically too much of what we did, but I do remember a lot of the sounds of canoeing: the soft slurp of the water when the paddle pierced the surface, the small floosh of the wake behind the boat, the occasional call of a bird, and the talking of the canoe’s occupants.
“Don’t lean too far over the side. You’ll tip the boat,” my father advised at least once every ride. Lisa and I would be dangling over the edges, our fingers skimming the cool water for “seaweed.”
“Look,” my mother interjected on ride after ride. “If you both paddle on the same side, we’ll go in circles, and you’ll keep hitting paddles. Is that what you want?” Of course that was what we wanted! It was a lake anyway. Where were we going to go if not in circles? I may not have been four the first time this thought crossed my mind, but it was certainly a canoe-trip staple contemplation. Besides, hitting paddles was not as boring as paddling.
“Oops!” One of us kids always said, “Oops!” This time, Lisa’s arms were the ones reaching over the side as her paddle floated away, away, away. At that point, early on in their canoeing life, Mom and Dad still discussed the best way to retrieve the paddle with one another as they swung the boat around. By the time my brother came along, paddle loss was such a routine occurrence that they just turned the canoe silently as soon as they heard, “Oops!”
On this occasion, as we drew alongside the paddle and Daddy fished it in with his own oar, we heard a splash on the other side of the canoe. There was Suzy in the lake.
“Daddy!” one of us yelled. “She’s swimming!”
“Yes, she’s dog-paddling.”
“No, she’s not, silly. She doesn’t have a paddle!”
I don’t remember the trip home. I don’t remember loading up the car or how we dried off the dog. What I do remember is that most of our canoeing trips were just like this one. Mom and Dad never stopped taking us, and I never quite figured out why.