Six Boys Against a Boat

The big idea around the camp the last few weeks has been “opting in.” As the summer winds to an end, we’re all feeling a bit frayed around the edges. The bug bites and bruises that patchwork our skin are so extensive that we don’t look tan so much as mottled. The fatigue from hiking miles every day is building up in our muscles and our minds. The newness of exciting activities like boating is wearing off and kids are dragging their feet. No matter what the activity is, there are always a half dozen kids whining that they just want to… (insert some non-available activity here). I know how they feel, to be honest, but as a counselor, my job is to trick them into thinking they’re having an awesome time until they actually do start having an awesome time, which means that I have to act like I’m having an awesome time even if my head is about to explode from frustration, exhaustion, dehydration, etc.

This is why I ended up captaining a canoe with six crowded and cranky boys last Wednesday.

I wanted to go out in a canoe because we were boating in the morning and I wasn’t wearing my swimsuit. Going out in the kayaks means you will get soaking wet. Period. In a canoe, at least, the counselor sits on the seat up out of the water pooling in the bottom of the boat, so I had half a chance of staying mostly dry. I meant to take two boys who were excited about being in my boat, but as we were getting ready, I discovered that there were two other boys who didn’t really want to go out. I talked them into coming with me. Four boys wouldn’t be so bad, I figured. It would allow them to sit in the center in their own section of the boat so everyone would have room to paddle and maneuver.

The trouble is that we were so slow getting our act together that we were the last ones to leave the beach, and there were two boys left who didn’t have a boat. The boating staffer (oh, so helpfully) said, “You can fit six in a canoe,” and that was that. I couldn’t possibly tell these two children that they’d have to go out alone with one of the boating staff when I still had room in my boat, so in they came, regardless of my lack of confidence in my ability to handle a very tippy boat bursting with uncomfortable children.

What’s wrong with uncomfortable children, you ask? They fidget. They shift around. In a car, this might result in other children becoming annoyed with the fidgeting child. In a canoe that has two children sitting side-by-side in every compartment, each little fidget sends the boat keeling dangerously close to tipping over. As someone who spent a great deal of time fidgeting in a canoe as a child, I know the canoes are more stable than they feel. I also know, however, exactly how much it takes to send one rolling. (Not all that much.)

Unfortunately, the cranky children who weren’t all that excited about going out in the boats soured the mood of the other kids and our rolling canoe was filled with shouts of “We’re going to tip!” and “I hate boating.” I tried to lighten the mood by offering a song, but the kindest response I got was, “Fine, we’ll listen to your song.” I tried to make a game out of the rolling motion by calling out “Lean left! Lean right” It might have worked…if they actually knew their left from their right. “Lean right! No…your other right!” was not the best game. We stayed afloat primarily because I outweigh your average fourth grader by a wide margin.

In my next attempt to turn the ride into a fun memory, I steered the boat over toward the shore we could look for frogs sunning themselves on lily pads. The ploy might actually have worked, if I hadn’t forgotten an important difference between a kayak with three people and a canoe with seven: minimal water depth. We did not find any frogs, but we found a large formation of rocks lurking right beneath the surface. Sadly, instead of being filled with awe at the wonder of geology, they added another item to their list of cries. “We’re going to tip!” “I hate boating!” “We’re going to be stuck here forever!”

In all reality, it did take me perhaps longer than it should have to figure out that I could push the paddle against the lake bottom to set us free, but you have to give me a break. Gracefully navigating a canoe heavy with unhelpful hands takes practice that I have not had–a fact which came home to me when nature saw my struggles to entertain the kids and lent me a hand. We had been free of the rocks for a few minutes and were lumbering (yes, I wouldn’t have thought it possible either, but canoes can be made to lumber) slowly away from shore to the music of our complaint chorus when the wind stole my hat. It flipped quite gracefully off my head and around a loop-de-loop before landing about six inches out of reach.

What would have been a simple distance to navigate in a kayak became the torment of Tantlus in a loaded canoe. I made the mistake of leaning out to stretch my arm…all of the kids on the hat-side of the boat leaned to and it was only by the scared and frantic leanings of the kids on the hat-free side of the boat that we did not topple. Our next effort was to paddle the boat in a circle to get closer to the hat…if we were actually getting any closer, it was by tiny spiraling increments that could not be observed by our reaching arms. Each turn seemed only to swamp the hat further, sending it sinking beneath the surface.

My last ditch effort was to coordinate our efforts to paddle away from the hat, turn around, and approach it in a straight line. As I  called out “Paddle on the left!” I suddenly realized that I wasn’t hearing the complaints anymore. The boys were laughing and smiling and working as a team. We managed to sail up right next to the hat so the boy in the front could snag it with the handle of his paddle. It traveled from the bow to the stern to shouts and laughter as it dripped profusely on everyone until the boy sitting closest to me deposited it, sopping wet, onto my head, just in time for us to hear the “all in” whistle.

With our new attitudes and spirit of teamwork, we managed to make it into shore without any close calls with swimming. We even had the satisfaction of being the first boat back, by virtue of never having gotten very far of course, but to hear my crew tell it, we won a neck and neck race against the speediest boaters in the camp. I was pleased to see that they were laughing and smiling as they told their friends and the other counselors about the “worst boat trip ever.”

And all it took was an epic struggle against nature and a laugh at my expense.


2 thoughts on “Six Boys Against a Boat

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